Suzy Poling: Total Internal Reflection


Suzy Poling: Total Internal Reflection

By Mary Anne Kluth February 18, 2016

Although Suzy Poling is an experimental, interdisciplinary artist working across media and genres, the works in Total Internal Reflection, her solo exhibition at CULT, directly address photography’s traditional preoccupation: light itself. In her site-specific and time-based works, she deploys light as a fugitive manifestation, and in her large monochrome prints, light is a catalyst, its presence and absence permanently recorded.

The light in Triadic Tower (2016) emanates from a pattern beaming out of a projector. Dominating a third of the gallery, it gets caught, broken up, and bounced around the room by shards of mirror and sculptural pyramid shapes that distort the floor and walls. As the video cycles through a series of abrupt black-and-white geometries, the spatial cues indicating where the gallery itself begins and ends break down, producing an effect similar to a migraine hallucination or a speculative take on the view from inside a faceted diamond.

Suzy Poling. Light Apparitions #14, 2015; archival pigment print; 50 x 40 inches. Edition of 5 + 2 AP. Courtesy of CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions. 

Mirrored Crystal System (2016) is similarly illuminated by a video, but this piece features a single reflective, rotating sculpture in the center of the space, throwing amorphous, slippery reflections in all directions. In both installations the flickering projections provide light and a visual tempo but remain elusive. It’s impossible to visualize the video light sources as flat, unbroken images on their own. Distortion and chaos have interfered. 

The soundtrack from Spectral Transmissions (2016), a more traditional video presentation, bleeds into all of the gallery spaces, mingling with the other works and preempting any experience of the single piece as a whole. Its heavy reverb is an auditory analog of optical reflection—part sci-fi sound effect, part minimal proto-song—and it helps reinforce an alien vibe. Poling’s mirrored sculptures exist in dialogue with other refractory works like Andy Diaz Hope & Jon Bernson’s recent Beautification Machines, but her otherworldly audio track generates its own very specific dimension.

Suzy Poling: Total Internal Reflection, 2016; installation view, CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions, San Francisco. Courtesy of CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions. Photo: John Wilson White.

And while the video image of Spectral Transmissions is fully visible as a complete picture (unlike the videos in the other installations), the subject is shrouded in shattered and reflective surfaces. Suggesting a medium ceremonially contacting an occult realm, the figure portrayed on loop is completely obscured by a silver costume that looks both utopian and dangerous. So although audiences have access to the representational content of the work, it serves to create a further layer of mystery, pointing to entire territories of unknowable information.

The prints in Total Internal Reflection contrast with the installation works by virtue of their concreteness. As works of graphical composition, Light Apparitions 14, 15, and 21 (2015) have a similar abstract, tonal balance to an Ellsworth Kelly painting or Tauba Auerbach’s Shatter works. They all share a certain structural orderliness. However, Poling’s prints also hint at disco mirrors, glitter, and a solarization effect akin to visual noise that cumulatively refer to pop cultural nightlife and even hedonism, exposing an allegiance to chaos already clearly developed in the installation and video works. While Poling, Auerbach, and Kelly are all working within the cool Apollonian light of logic, only Poling’s pieces emphatically include Dionysian abandon. They are dramatic, like black-and-white cousins of Mariah Robertson’s ecstatic C-prints

 Suzy Poling. Light Apparitions #15, 2015; archival pigment print; 40 x 30 inches. Edition of 5 + 2 AP. Courtesy of CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions. 

In the context of the entire exhibition, Poling gives the printed form itself poetic importance. The two-dimensional photographic works have locked down the light and shadows oscillating freely in the rest of the gallery. Light may have been the catalyst for these images for a fleeting moment, but now these marks are labeled archival and permanent. When photography was first developed, this technology for picture-making seemed magical, and the Light Apparitions series, with its grids and ombré fades, depicts and embodies a similar mystical, futuristic quality. Set in a contemporary world, these prints often recall pop-science diagrams used by publications like Scientific American or television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation to illustrate concepts in quantum physics or theoretical astronomy for a general audience, evoking associations with invisible realities such as the microscopic or the metaphysical.

By distilling a network of references into a meditation on light, Total Internal Reflection delves straight into two central paradoxes: the impulse to visualize the invisible, and the incoherence of futurism as a genre. Rather than allowing the tensions elicited by these paradoxes to muddle the work, the exhibition coalesces around them, an effect that occurs because Poling is able to inextricably link weirdness to resonant formal beauty.


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Suzy Poling: Total Internal Reflection is on view at CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions, in San Francisco, through February 27, 2016.

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