Stephen Beal

Susan Mikula
American Bond

Published on the occasion of exhibition LA04
10.5 x 8.375 in. softcover;145 pp., 60 color plates
$34.00 + applicable tax and shipping, available from the gallery

Foreward by George Lawson

Commentary by Jill McDonough

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Getting the News
Susan Mikula's American Bond
— George Lawson, Los Angeles, September 2011

It is difficult to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day for lack
of what is found there.
—William Carlos Williams, from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower

In 2009 Susan Mikula traveled to Louisiana and Texas and then on to California with close friend and volunteer driver Jill McDonough to take a series of Polaroid photographs of industrial dock sites, using an SX-70 Alpha 1 camera that by then qualified as an antique. She had to procure the packets of self-developing film, long commercially unavailable, on eBay, through garage sales, or wherever she could find them. In some cases the film had been sitting around on people’s dusty garage shelves for decades. The red spectrum of the dyes had faded and the surface emulsions had coagulated, leaving her with a characteristic greenish palette and fractured surface that she learned to exploit. Her choice to shoot in Polaroid may have initially been driven by aesthetics, but as the series has unfolded into a cycle of almost 60 finished images that span three years, it has become apparent just how commensurate are her chosen medium and her chosen subject. Mikula has captured a fading aspect of a bygone era with fading film and an obsolete technology.

Mikula shot the cycle with a soft focus intentionally gauged with the adjustable lens or auto-focus override of her camera. Her methods of shooting ostensibly out of focus and occasionally overlaying multiple images allowed her to push the film to accept more light—that is, more information—by intentionally long exposures. The result feels like memory, but she ducks nostalgia because she avoids interpretive journalism in her treatment and because, despite the anachronism of Polaroid, she incorporates the most contemporary of means into her overall process. She digitally scans her original Polaroids, adjusts the scale and then puts them out as pigment prints (technically similar to ink jet but with archival pigments) on rag paper, mounts these in turn onto back-framed aluminum, and sprays the final surface with a matte varnish. The image itself is true to the camera shot, and is not digitally post-produced, other than to grow physically larger and to lose the glossy sheen of the original Polaroid. American painter Jasper Johns is often quoted as having said that to make art, you take something and do something to it, then do something to that, then do something to that. Mikula fits the axiom. The fruit of this series of operations, although still technically a photograph, is strangely concrete, as satisfying an object as it is an image, and extends the inherent commensurability of her method and her motif, producing a post-industrial artifact with a hand finish and a history of its own.

Following her initial foray into the ports of Galveston, Texas and Long Beach, California, Mikula gathered the best of the images under the title, American Device, and then took a second trip, this time inland to Pittsfield, Massaschussets, to shoot the factories and ware- houses of companies such as General Electric and Raytheon. By now she knew she was working on a greater cycle, later to be collectively titled American Bond, and this second leg of the suite she called, American Vale. We showed selections from American Device in the San Francisco gallery in February of 2010 and selections from American Vale in March of 2011. We present chosen works from the third series in the cycle, American Breakbulk, in the Los Angeles gallery concurrent with the release of this book. The term “Breakbulk” refers to cargo that has been separated from its container on the docks for handling, and perhaps there is something of a summation in the reference, as we can now take each image in the expanded cycle and view it both individually and in context to the whole achievement. And Mikula’s achievement with the American Bond cycle is significant.

Formally, as a photographer here in our gallery stable dominated by very tactile painters, she more than holds her own as a concrete artist, someone who makes things that have body. Socially, her content, the narrative of her work, is as current as this morning’s AP wires, though she brings a Zen-like equanimity to the volatile issue of the country’s waning industrial strength. She declines to blame or editorialize; still she doesn’t eschew the impact or the sobering ramifications of her subject. For all that, these images are beautiful; although some of the facilities she photographed have since been demolished, Mikula manages to filter a sense of phoenix-like resurrection through her documentation.

Perhaps resiliency would be a better word, for as President Obama named it in a speech of just a few weeks ago, resilience is the American bond. Whatever sinew will see us through the stresses inferred in every image in Mikula’s cycle, it boils down to just hanging in there. For artists who struggle with the balance between a universal, perennially relevant form to their art and the immediate impact of social engagement, that resilience serves as much to preserve and contextualize our collective past as to provide a shared conscience for our ever-unfolding present. To these ends, Susan Mikula’s art is one part interpretive and nine parts generative. She understands history but she is making news.

A Personal Account of Susan Mikula’s American Bond Cycle
— Jill McDonough, New York City, August 2011

It’s right to celebrate these pictures, to praise Susan Mikula’s ideas, processes, and images. But it seems wrong to write about them. In writing about them, I feel I’m attaching my own interpretations, when what I love about them is that they can do so many different things. I don’t want you to see these pictures the way I see them. I want to imagine how you see them.

The brave thing about these photographs—one of the brave things about these photo- graphs—is Mikula’s willingness to hand control to the viewer. These pictures, made with such ferocious precision, aren’t done until you look at them, until they weave themselves together with your memories, your neighbor’s kitchen, your night terrors and daydreams. A woman looks at these pictures and remembers the dream where she finds another room in her apartment. And the next person to see this red/green block and those deep shadows knows that other viewers will have their own responses, just as private and deeply felt. All of us are walking around with these images inside us, from the flying dream, or waiting for the school bus. Susan Mikula has found a way not just to take pictures, or make photographs, but to show us what is inside each other’s minds.

Is this your own memory, or are you stepping into someone else’s by mistake? If you squint, can you remember? We ask where these photographs were taken because we can’t believe we are seeing these images outside our own heads.

When you are writing, when you are doing any number of creative tasks, there’s plenty of room for revision. Write the same idea down a dozen different ways and then pick the clearest. Throw a béchamel together and season to taste. Plant a flower garden and then change your mind about the begonias. Photography often has room for that, to burn and dodge an image in a dark room, or futz with a digital file until it looks the way you want it. But Susan Mikulais precise. She is old school with a mix of old and new technologies, and constructs her work with a series of self-imposed limits-working with available light, modifying vintage cameras, stocking up on film that isn’t made anymore. These limits, these rules, these requirements, can work like form in a poem, or true likeness in a painted portrait-fulfilling the requirements allows a specific kind of beauty to emerge.

I’ve seen her taking pictures. I was startled by her quickness; she is so certain of what she wants and how to get it, that by the time she is standing in front of her subject with her camera in her hand, she’s almost done. She has already made the tough decisions; her eye is assured, practiced at framing and seeing and knowing what to do to make the scene she already has in mind. Mikula’s precision, confidence, and knowledge allow her to produce something that can make you cry. That is part of the power of these photographthat this serious, meticulous, thoroughly planned process can produce images so diffuse they feel like a movie from your future, or a dream you had when you were little, or this morning, in between alarms.

Sometimes I get to be the one driving when Susan takes pictures. It’s my job to put Susan in front of the things she wants. Usually a little ahead of them, so she can look back at buildings or walls or shapes through the lens of the old Polaroid cameras she messes with, collects and uses. My other jobs are to keep the car very cold in summer, for the film, or sort of warm in winter, for the film. I am also often in charge of trash. The film makes a lot of trash.

I have lots of ideas about subjects for Susan, and they are all just awful. I love her pictures, so when I see something I think has some glimmer of her sense of color or light, I want to give it to her. Look at that gas flare, Susan! or Nice abandoned church! But I’m always wrong. Because it isn’t the thing that makes a Mikula a Mikula—it’s Susan’s eye, and her choices, and her research and vision and crazy—expensive expired film and how long she leaves the camera open. Susan’s photographs are not about the it: they aren’t even about about.

Susan is very polite when I make these suggestions. I say, sweet smokestack, right? or I like that oil drum someone’s been using as a grill. And she just keeps looking out the window. Maybe she is very polite. Maybe she can’t hear me because she is so busy getting me to put her in front of the thing that she can make into the picture I’m convinced she already has in her head.

Here is how Susan decides where to tell me to go. She spends hours looking at Google maps—satellite images and street views, so she has a good idea about where we are headed. Here is my favorite part: the noise. When Susan takes a picture the camera makes a particularly
satisfying noise. Probably you have heard it, but I bet not in a long time. It kind of goes CHA-zi-ING. It’s tonal. The camera speaks Mandarin. Sometimes I drive Susan around and she kind of goes eh. The light’s not right, or something, and she doesn’t take any pictures, not one.

For Breakbulk, she brought 144 exposures’ worth. She had lots of back-up plans for other places she had researched, if this was not the place. And all the film was gone in three hours. CHA-zi-ING. CHA-zi-ING. Even the four she saved to take on the beach, where she had promised to buy me a hot dog and a black and white shake when we were done. CHA-zi-ING. CHA-zi-ING. CHA-zi-ING. I was very, very happy. And that was before the hot dog.

I have felt menaced with Susan. Those guys watching us pass their refinery in Port Arthur would prefer it if we were not there. It is my job to keep an eye out for menacing people, because when Susan is taking pictures she is only looking at the things that interest her. Angry men in hard hats in Port Arthur, Texas, don’t interest her. They interest me. I’m interested in not interesting them.

In Camden we were not a threat, just a curiosity. So even though Camden has one of the highest murder rates in the country, and Chris Christie cut the police force in half this year, we felt safe. Or, not safe, just irrelevant. We were not worth messing with.

At the end, when we were laughing and happy and the bag of film trash was bulging and we couldn’t believe she had taken so many pictures, she said I’m not nearly done, but I’m running out of film. And then we found the Mikula building that was all the parts: Mikula slant, overgrowth, fencing, cyclone wire. Mikula angle, light. Every element she likes, with the light she likes, and men working but if I pulled past them quick and then stopped short we were out of sight and she could do whatever she wanted. She took her last pictures there, even the four exposures she was saving for the shore.

It was a perfect day. Cloudy and diffuse. It was a privilege. It was a pleasure. When she is taking pictures, she is flushed and happy and you feel like you are helping make something wonderful. Because you are.

Jill McDonough is a poet and directs 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center’s online writing workshops.