By PAUL HRUSA — The easiest way to see an exhibit of work by local street and documentary photographer Chris Suspect is to travel to another city. But as part of the inaugural Focus on the Story festival this past June, the Lost Origins Gallery in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of D.C. held a short, five-day exhibit of Suspect’s work entitled Gratuity Included. Influenced by Weegee, Larry Fink, and Anders Petersen, the black and white photographs for Gratuity Included are culled from Suspect’s Instagram feed of the same name. But Suspect has synthesized and transcended his influences into a mature style that is humorous, surreal, dramatic, and empathic.
Art is born from a spark between activity and assembly. For this exhibit, Suspect’s initial activity involved setting foot in situations of assembly such as house parties, art openings, street festivals, and unconventional hotel conferences, camera and flash in hand, photographing the activity of the assembled. The results are spontaneous, chaotic, exuberant scenes with layered viewpoints. The people are ecstatic, desperate, and exhausted players. In these pictures, their vulnerability confronts our voyeurism with wonderful interplays of shape and sweat and mystery and void. Some of the players in the frame look at us while we look at them while others look away or are voyeurs themselves. Dark corners and distant silhouettes outline the stage and signal a way out, but the activity is reaching a crescendo and nobody cares to leave.
Only a portion of the photographs are hung as individual pictures. Suspect’s next activity combines single photographs into compositional diptychs, some horizontally aligned, some vertically. The relationships discovered in these pairings are not merely literal or two versions of one idea, but rather they are speculative and sculptural. Suspect has a good eye, a knack for concept, and the adeptness to synthesize form and concept. Thus, the assembly of two individual picture ideas creates a new subjective reality, or a third idea. 1+1=3.
Building off the activity of pairings, Suspect dives into modular assemblage in the form of crosses. Four photographs use tone, expression, and concurrent “V” shapes to form a harmonious alignment. They are displayed closely yet apart in a grid whose negative space forms the shape of a cross. Elsewhere a tight grouping of five photographs constructs a classic Greek cross. The formal qualities and content in these pieces are not arbitrary but further explore the narrative ideas of the diptychs. The photographs bridge an array of time zones across a span of years, yet they create the semblance of one party, one gathering, one quest for the unforgettable moment. 1+1+1+1=1
Two crosses at human scale face each other on opposing walls. To the left a traditional Latin cross assembled from six domination scenes takes the viewer on a tour room by room, each doorway an entrance into a station of the cross. Opposite and to the right, six scenes from five parties are organized into a St. Peter’s cross. The foreground activity of arms, legs, and eyes in interdependent posture against a background blend of deep black tones produces a visually unifying rhythm and hook. It reels us in and steers us from station to station in such a way that we are there in that one room at that one house alive with endless abandon.
ArtBurn is a new column reviewing local art. Paul Hrusa is a painter who lives and works in Hyattsville. His work has been exhibited in New York City, Washington, DC, and Richmond, among other places. You can find more about him at his website.