Art Lies Issue No. 62

Written by Garland Fielder

July 2009

What if you had a specific date in your mind—in your life—that dictated your demise? Would that be enough to set you off? To push you over the edge and make the ultimate choice of consequence? Or would it make you want to document your imminent end of days? What would be the point of an endeavor faced with such a definite cadence? For most of us, the endpoint of our lives is blessedly murky, and art that deals with the topic tends to be as well. While Damien Hirst comes to mind, with his epic and yet approachable oeuvre of commoditized carpe diem, Sarah Sudhoff’s Repository, on view at Art League Houston, deals us another hand altogether.The artist presents her triumphant battle with cervical cancer in an unflinching manner, direct in its message and methodology. 

The experience of viewing the exhibition pulls into focus several cultural issues but remains defiantly its own—and not overly didactic or sentimental. The end result is presumably aligned with the artist’s own reckoning with mortality: honest, direct and merciless, yet somehow cathartic and life-affirming. 

The exhibit consists of photographs and videos pertaining to doctor/ patient dynamics. Perhaps the most poignant works are several elegantly staged photographs of the artist as patient, positioned in various waiting-room poses. Her gaze is directed at the viewer, and the photographic apparatus is often apparent, à la Cindy Sherman. Other aspects of the work define Sudhoff’s aesthetic. Lighting and medical implements in these images feel more staged than discovered. This works to her advantage, given the highly personal content of these images. In other words, Sudhoff’s use of the medical environment as a stage makes sense. It emboldens the artist in a way that is clearly reflected in her compositions. The emphasis placed on her formal choices mirrors her medical ones (or lack thereof). 

In the photograph Exam 2, Sudhoff sits astride a gynecological examination table loosely draped in a patient’s gown, legs straddling the forefront of the composition yet not explicitly so. Her right breast is subtly exposed (if the term subtle can be employed here) matching her defiant, almost haughty gaze. This posture matches her state of mind, which is the theme of the exhibition—and the theme of her life at the time, really. In the face of such a dilemma, the very act of creation serves as no less than a beacon for humanity. Even though Sudhoff’s affliction proved survivable, generating an aesthetic out of the experience takes an important, almost oppositional stance to artists such as Matthew Barney, who invent dramatic tropes in order to enigmatically abstract them. Sudhoff has the grace to let the parody of life define her work, and the talent to do it in such a way as to make it art, life, death and all the stuff in between.

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