REVIEW: Suzanne Treister, ALCHEMY, Annely Juda Fine Art

11 September - 25 October 2008

Suzanne Treister, ALCHEMY/The Guardian, 6th October 2007, Dimensions: 4' x 5' watercolour, ink and felt tip pen on watercolour paper. Courtesy the artist.

For an exhibition that deals mystically, directly and then almost nostalgically with notions of communication, it’s unsurprising to discover several ways of reading the work of Suzanne Treister.

Alchemy, Correspondence: From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and War Artists are three distinct bodies of work but each has a poetic subtlety    that transcends three distinct experiences. Indeed, the visual and  intellectual subtlety of Treister’s work makes for a contemplative, and  ultimately rewarding, study of the passages and processes we have for  absorbing and  receiving information in the modern day.

Correspondence is a beguiling and fascinating work, despite a lack of bombast or colour. Featuring 324 letterheads of government offices, NGOs, corporations, embassies and arms companies, each hand-drawn in lead  and arranged systematically into nine 6×6 grids, Correspondence reminds  us of the human and the personal behind the official and the impersonal.  The slight smudges of lead and occasional wobble in line are reminiscent of  school tracing exercises but the effect is quietly devastating.

Suzanne Treister, Correspondence: From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, 1 of 324 drawings of letterheads reproduced in pencil, primarily from Government and Presidential Offices, Ministries of Defence, NGOs and arms manufacturers across the world, both past and current. 21cm x 29.7cm

Correspondence asks us to consider notions of representation, to recognise  the human contribution to the making of ‘official’ decisions and the  subsequent exchanging, negotiating and conveying of such decisions. Also,  significantly, to recognise the powerful anonymity of the logo, which  abrogates all personal accountability in a system of complex communications, such as is represented here.

The idea of an official news or narrative is taken literally in Alchemy, a series of seven large-scale watercolour and ink works based on the covers of seven newspapers from around the world, including The Guardian, Al-Ahram and The New York Times. There is a mystical, otherworldly element to the series however, with a central circular motif to each work reminiscent of esoteric crystal ball gazing. Headlines swirl, images threaten to evanesce thanks to the gestural wash of colours and unfinished lines and there is arguably an aesthetic simpatico to the tarot card, with its codes and complex symbology.

Installation view, Suzanne Treister, Correspondence, Annely Juda Fine Art, London, 2008.

Suggestive of powers outside the conventional realms of politics and mainstream media, Alchemy explores the slipperiness of interpretation in the face of multiple belief systems and channels for receiving information. There is also a wall drawing in the Alchemy series, A Timeline of Science Fiction Inventions: Weapons, Warfare and Security and this is perhaps the least successful part of the exhibition, especially compared to the evocative pencil sketch portraits in the eponymous War Artists series. A history documenting ‘innovations of imaginary and fantastic technology’ according to the press release, the colourful drawing looks like a series of DNA models but is convoluted and the attempt at witty didactics is at odds with the subtlety of other works on display.

Overwhelmingly though Treister’s complex and considerable exhibition is a provocative and thoughtful meditation on the power of communication in the modern day.