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Susanna Heller: Catastrophe as Muse

Catastrophe is Susanna Heller’s muse, and—as her current show at Olga Korper Gallery makes clear—she has made some kind of peace with it.

It is a challenge that life has placed before her. First, Heller became arguably the most authoritative artistic chronicler of the 9/11 disaster, walking from her Williamsburg apartment over the bridge to Manhattan almost every day for four months to document the ruins, producing smouldering charcoals and paintings that bore witness to chaos in tortured, incredulous, and sometimes exultant strokes, dabs and jabs. Her attachment to the subject was particularly charged by her having been an artist in residence in the World Trade Centre towers just two years before their destruction: her view, which she painted often and gloriously, had been the dizzying vista from the 91st floor of the north tower—two floors below where the first plane struck. Her grisly and gritty works that followed figured not just the collapse of steel and glass but of modernist hope as well, with the site viewed as a kind of compost of past humanist dreams (a gothic arch here, a sleek shard of futurism there) rendered in ruination.

Then, as the psychological dust from that calamity finally settled, devastation came on the personal front, with her husband of 17 years, sociology professor Bill DiFazio, suffering a bout of necrotizing fasciitis, which devoured his right leg in a series of 27 operations over the span of three agonized months. How to cope?

Her response was true to form. “I do what I always do,” she told me during a recent visit to Toronto. “I found survival on the tip of a pencil.” Attending his hospital bedside, she drew to while away the many days—observing her own experience of fear and horror even as she recorded his humanity under siege. His body, like the city, became a ravaged system. A breathing tube arches through space like an expressway, delivering goods and services (oxygen, in this case) to the human metropolis of cells. IV tubes stream across a bleached landscape of bedclothes.

Like Monet’s famous 1879 deathbed portrait of his wife Camille, Heller’s paintings of her nearly decomposing husband record her compulsion to observe, as she did after 9/11, and to immerse herself in the horrific moment in order to know it more fully. (“I caught myself watching her tragic forehead,” Monet confessed to a friend, “almost mechanically observing the sequence of changing colours that death was imposing on her rigid face. Blue, yellow, grey and so on… my reflexes compelled me to take unconscious action in spite of myself.”) Some might interpret this impulse as voyeuristic, but it is more properly understood as courageous. In one drawing, positioned at floor level, DiFazio’s genitals bloom in startling succulence, unscathed by the horrors wreaked below. It is a tender view, suffused with love.

As luck would have it, the window above her husband’s hospital bed afforded a view of Manhattan, the East River and Brooklyn—the type of view that has long been an inspiration to her, and several paintings give us the heap of patient and bed linen with the city and river beyond, suggesting structural parallels between the two living organisms. In Waiting for Dawn, the stanchion that holds the monitors and IV bags towers above the bed like modernist architecture come unhinged, the tubes and conduits forming cascading traceries of line, while the city rises in the distance.

Other paintings, like Electrical Storm, Warehouse Rooftop and Necklace of Stones, describe the view from the couple’s new Brooklyn condo (in a restored pencil factory close to the river), rapturously taking in the deliriously layered texture of water, city and sky in a manner that recalls, for me, Fred Varley’s famous painting Night Ferry, Vancouver (1937), another kindred urban rhapsody. In these paintings, we find Heller returning again to the world outside the hospital walls, where clouds mass heroically in the sky like warring galleons, and the city roils below with the dramatic cycles of destruction and renewal. They are more scarred with black than her earlier views, more fierce at times, and more unravelled in their touch.

Of course, that New York skyline, like the body of her beloved, will now be marked forever by an absence: the towers that once defined its southern extremity. But the world still turns, and clouds still fly overhead. Heller breathes it all in, living and painting with what remains.

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