Susan Silas’s parents, both Hungarian Jews, immigrated to the United States in 1949 after surviving World War II — her father in slave labor camps and her mother in a Budapest ghetto. As a child, she learned about their experiences by eavesdropping on their evening gatherings with fellow survivors when she was supposed to be asleep.
Her artworks, invariably imprinted by the Shoah, are at once acts of remembrance and confrontations with nothingness. Her most ambitious project, Helmbrechts walk (1998–2003), retraces the route taken by 580 female Jewish prisoners on a forced march from the Helmbrechts concentration camp in Germany to Czechoslovakia in the closing weeks of the war. Silas began her commemorative walk, which took 22 days, on April 13, 1998, the 53rd anniversary of the march, documenting the journey in video, photography, and writing.
For her ongoing series, found birds, which she began in 2000, the artist picks up dead birds that she comes across in city streets or parks and carries them to her studio, where she photographs them against a white backdrop, Avedon-style, in progressive states of decay. The images are astonishingly beautiful in their precision of detail and modulation of color; they are also piteous and often repulsive, aiming squarely at the deadness of the thing.
By employing photographic techniques usually reserved for fashion models or luxury goods, Silas, who is also a regular contributor to Hyperallergic’s daily edition, achieves an unsettling dichotomy between allure and aversion. The rich colors and clean lines seduce us into gazing upon the image of a once-living thing, an embrace that feels both privileged — coming, as it does, within a slice of time extending beyond the life of the bird — and indecent.
Still, Silas seems less intent on disconcerting the viewer than on using the incitement of beauty to drive home a sense of oblivion: that the birds, no matter how gorgeously plumed, are “dead as earth,” as Lear said of Cordelia.
The formal elegance and merciless eye of the found birds series carry over into love in the ruins; sex over 50, Silas’s solo show at Studio 10 in Bushwick, as well as the concurrent exhibition in the same building, To Selves, at Momenta Art, which features self-portraits by Silas and Joy Episalla.
The images of love in the ruins, another ongoing project (since 2003) described on Silas’s website as “a personal diary of sex and sensuality […] about the resilience and the decay of the aging body,” are illuminated with the same ambient light found in the bird photos and the self-portraits. The subject is Silas and her husband, a powerful-looking, barrel-chested man, in the act of making love.
Shot against white walls and white sheets with pale gray stripes, the photographs convey a contained sense of action, with the limbs and torsos forming tight geometric, and at times symmetric, shapes. The classicizing impulse of the composition is countered by the rough details of the lovers’ mature bodies: graceless patches of hair, sagging stretches of skin, constellations of burst varicose veins.
Like the artworks of John Coplans (1920–2003), who started photographing his own naked body when he turned 60, Silas’s combinations of structural rigor and unflattering reality accentuate the humanity underlying historical formulations of the ideal. At the same time, they subvert the notion of the ideal by infusing it with unvarnished intimations of mortality.
Silas’s pictures also convey an animal urgency that Coplans’s meditations on aging don’t approach. In one of the most potent photos, the lovers’ faces, joined in a kiss, seem to mirror each other while Silas’s right foot, embellished in bright red toenail polish, flings upward, breaking the framework of the otherwise symmetrical composition. The near-desperation of their union is palpable, as if clinging to one another will stave off the fatal consequences of time.
Silas’s father died in 1963 at the age of 49, eighteen years after the end of the war — a survivor who didn’t survive middle age. In light of this loss, does the exhibition’s subtitle, sex over 50, carry a biographical resonance, a conscious assertion of Eros over Thanatos? And could it also suggest that Silas views her life with her husband after she turned 50 with a mix of emotions similar to those encountered in her found birds — as a kind of illegitimate privilege?
Whatever the backstory, the passion depicted in these photographs feels earned. Shaded by experience and emotional complexity, the lovers’ embrace bears the recognition that each day marks an advantage against the casual randomness of the universe.
But the dice never stop rolling, and the most we can do with the time we have left is fill it with love and work. The moments Silas records in her cleanly sculpted, light-filled images double down on that imperative, possessing both nothingness and its resistance.
Susan Silas: love in the ruins; sex over 50 continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through April 6.
TO SELVES: Joy Episalla and Susan Silas continues at Momenta Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through April 13.