Suzanne Gold: Hypoxic Serenity
Well now… and just what in the fuck are you doing here, hmm?, suspended or rising or, fuck, sinking, but underwater all the same, completely ensconced in this cool, sterile little personal void, a pet abyss in somebody's back yard, all over your head at the bottom of a David Hockney painting, the anti-body fluid which releases your limbs and evokes a feeling of weightlessness, even as you sink, cool, calm, muted, in color and temperature and tone and vibe and feel and yet you are burning, immolating?, burning in the eyes—those chemicals, the chemicals of preventive healing … the entire thing, the in-ground pool, is, after all, little more than a highly cultivated, perfect, meticulous planned, and violently executed wounding of nature, the leveling, the digging, the shattering of any earth which dares resit—Jesus, remember the mournful howls and paroxysmal wails of the car alarms, the whole development screaming and jabbering and chittering, like big frightened birds, when that massive jackhammer came down, down, cracked the obstinate, rattled walls, windows, pictures, homes, set those crying beasts shaking on their suspensions—and then, upon the wound's completion, the endless prevention of healing, the shoring up of the gouge with concrete, the endless application, testing, balancing, and application again of a myriad of chemical agents to kill, relentlessly, to remove life from your water, to create a private sea antiseptic, safe, unflaggingly beautiful—and burning, relentless, desperate burning in your chest, and you are alone at the bottom of that sea, a world of off-white filtered through water, tiles the horizon line between here, which is beautiful and cold and clean and where you most assuredly do not belong, and there, with its air, its sound, its sun, its unfiltered light … the light, the light dances across the tile line, some of it finding its way to the bottom, to you, some of it being arrested, locked into a dark form, on the deck, some of it hurtling quixotically towards the pool's surface, shattering itself against the top, exploding into clinquant little pieces, the brilliant light of sun, of the surface, of life … of hypoxia? - B. David Zarley, Chicago Contributor
Suzanne Gold | The deep end, 2016, screen print on canvas, 65 x 41 inches. Photo by Cory Malnarick
Of course the pool can be read as easy-breezy, summertime fun! Grills, beers, a sun wearing sunglasses, wandering eyes, panting tongues, happy yips as the cold makes contact with slowly burning flesh; but take the pool in art, and one finds something more amorphous, something alluring and frightening, exotic and odd, a barren alien world able to be encountered and explored at a relatively easy whim, but far from danger-free.
The in-ground pool is shorthand for success, a lambent personal slice of the earth's mighty, seminal bathysphere purged purposefully of all life—having life relentlessly scoured from it, by means chemical, natural, physical—and rendered operation theater clean for your own estival operations. It is a crowning achievement and brass ring, a hobby, a source of pride and shame, a locus, especially in the turbulence of pubescence, for sex, fear, jealously, joy … the same place where swimsuits expose and spiders float with horrible babies on their backs, where skinny dipping and drowned field mice meet, where relaxation reigns and its hegemony far from benign, the fences, swimming lessons, life preservers no match for an attentive eye, an attentive eye no match for a determined sinking soul.
It is, perhaps, this notion of the pool-as-cauldron—dear Lord, have you ever really seen them glow? seen them shimmer in the night, sigils of some odd corner of reality, inviting and intimidating—that lends the pool its bizarre place in art, from Clay's anxieties coming to a humming crescendo in Palm Springs to the eerily joyless yet exceedingly sunny A Bigger Splash, a long line of pool deck dramas to which one should add Suzanne Gold's Comfort Station solo show, At your own risk.
Gold's screen printed depictions of a pool from beneath its waters heavily evoke the dissociative feeling one gets when one becomes colloidal; they never quite seem to occur at the surface or the bottom, instead wavering along the edge as the water and light does. They do not explicitly imply that the viewer is drowning, though the exhibition title—and distinct lack of ladders, stairs, or even, it appears, a slope to the shallows—add a distinct soupcon of menace to the proceedings, until one begins to consider that the seemingly ominous name is regularly plastered all over hotel signs when the lifeguard is off duty; Gold is adept at keeping one adrift.
That cool dispassion with which Gold presents your views is the strongest element of At your own risk, a flattening of what is either an incredibly serene or incredibly terrifying moment similar to the ground grading required of the pool's construction or the ruthless dominance of sunny days. Gold presents the idyllic as anomic, detached from even definite human presence beside yourself, the shadowy form of The feeling of being watched not guaranteed to be a person, or even real, for that matter, perhaps just the feeling, or even the hallucinations of an oxygen-starved brain.
By having shadows be the only avatar of the physical world beyond the pool, Gold sends creeping up the brain stem a deeply atavistic unease far older than swim safety, than the Mammalian diving reflex, even than the urge to breathe itself. In our most primeval cores still lurks creatures of the sea, wherein shadows mark both prey and predator, survival depending on the identity of each ombre, and respectively swimming toward or away.
One feels truly, remarkably alone at the bottom of Gold's pool.
Gold's cyanotic palette—ultramarine, aqua, cobalt, turquoise, the off-white of naked canvas—is not only, of course, highly evocative of the subject and soothing, is screen printed onto the canvas thinly and evenly. The light application of the colors and the gentle wave of the canvas makes for a ekphrastic rendition of the pool's surface, a remarkably simple—and effective—mimicry.
The pool itself is depicted from various depths, distances, and angles, freely explored—as a diver would—in three dimensions. Gold's roving eye, set free of our usual restraints and swimming in a glorious palette, takes full advantage, with some works full-on descending into a kind of almost abstraction, the various demarcation lines—colors, tiles, the stratified world of the pool—providing the only orientation; pieces like At the wall and A source of light once again straddle the line of delirious fear and alien ecstasy, brief flashes of confusion to be either fought against or surrendered to.
In a suite of zoomed-in views—particularly Repeat and The way out—the refracted light of the shallow end tessellates the bottom, morphing the safest haven into a slide of paramecium, or, perhaps more mischievously, a collection of blue-green algae and cyanobacteria, the Great Givers of our very breath. This trick is the most dramatic example of Gold's mastery of light, her expert working of every manner of wave involved in her poolscapes crucial to their appeal. Light for Gold dapples, shimmers, bursts; it floats atop the surface like exit signs, illuminates the very bottom of The deep end, it arrests and manifests shadows on the surfaces, on the edges.
So, yeah, quick, just what in the fuck are you doing here at the bottom of the pool, you observer-cum-apneist? Quick, because this experience is, by definition, finite; it will end soon, although in what way is impossible to tell. Everything is cold and remarkable and smooth, empty—perhaps even more empty than you can ever know—and lit more beautifully than a church; in spite of the inherent wrongness, the inevitable alienation—you do not belong down here! with your weak, stinging eyes lying to you, your skin desperately creasing for grip, your heart slowing, your extremities exsanguinating, your thorax filling with warm blood, your lungs burning for air—everything seems so peaceful, so soothing, so serene …
It is just like drowning.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) and at bdavidzarley.com.