Landscape as Process: The Art of Susan Goethel Campbell

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Susan Goethel Campbell, an environmentalist at the core, is a multidisciplinary artist who is deeply steeped in tradition and profoundly connected to nature. Her work is a slowly evolving dance devoted to researching, collecting data, and balancing two or three projects in different forms of completion at once. She has worked with scientists and meteorologists, but her work is far from rigid. In fact, her ideas are manifested in atmospheric ways that align our thoughts, emotions, and actions with nature.

With her large floor installation, Resisting Certainty at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Campbell takes the art of horticulture and ingeniously turns all conventions upside down. Inverted, natural sod tiles are used as the building blocks of a larger grid. This grid intersects, overlapping three larger, flat geometric planes. The planes are dark and ominous, hovering an inch from the floor and evoking a sense of groundlessness with the shifting change of environment. Together, the organic and the synthetic push our vantage to a further point. In this atmosphere, Campbell provides us with a rich, intuitive approach to discovering and meeting nature with its patterns. These relationships are not only intellectually stimulating, but also emotionally and spiritually satisfying.

Susan Goethel Campbell in her Detroit Landscape, 2014

Susan Goethel Campbell in her Detroit Landscape, 2014

As Campbell was growing up in the new suburb of East Grand Rapids, Michigan, the idea of “landscape as a process” left a lasting impression on her. She played freely in the open fields among sumac, milkweed, and wild pheasants. In her exploration, deep visceral observations encompassed life and death within the drama of seasons. She understood that change also included the cultural environment that was being built. The hushed bucolic spaces and the emergent landscape would inform the center of her future work.

“The infrastructure for future housing already existed in the landscape and I thought of this as one giant playfield. Two huge, raised sewers were at the bottom of a hill where I used to go sledding. They had raised cement caps with ladders that allowed you to climb down into the sewer. During the summer months, I would climb inside where it was cool and explore what I thought was a ‘natural’ underground river. Seasonal change included not only flowering plants, but newly erected wooden armatures that dotted open fields. The framing for a new house imposed a type of geometry on my field of vision where earth and sky were bracketed by angles and planes. The smell of new lumber mingled with the smell of earth. These early experiences influenced my art and process.”

Ironically, when Susan moved to Detroit as an adult in the early 1980’s, just as many open fields existed in the city as did in her childhood landscape. And much like her youthful experience, wild pheasants were seen on deserted roads and steam vaporized from lone sewer holes. While gravity and weather dissolved houses into the earth, nature overwhelmed vast plots with trees taking root in the eaves of derelict buildings. These lasting experiences in nature are apparent in the materials and methodologies Campbell uses in Resisting Certainty. Each sod tile is molded by a vacuum-formed plastic container. Campbell grows these in her Detroit studio, tending to them for several months at a time. However, against all good horticulture practice, she allows the grass to become root-bound. By using this process, the underneath is conformed into a near perfect positive, including a symbolic grid.

Up close, the sod tiles are wonderful to explore. Constricted, the roots intricately form a natural weaving in the ribs and crevices. Around the edges, individual tiles softy sweep away like the wheat fields from Campbell’s childhood. In the center of the tiles are raised flat circles. The circle is repeated in the sod tiles left upright. This orientation allows their square-constricted bottoms to become obscured after the long grass has naturally wilted outward. The idea represented here is certainly the cycles of change. It is also the attempt to include green space in urban planning, city parks, and perhaps in the center of all communities. This motif is repeated in smaller, rolled sod tiles.

The type of natural material Campbell cultivates is a grass that, against all odds, finds a home in the rooftops of dilapidated buildings. It is a weed that thrives in the poorest of soil and is able to survive the harshest of weather conditions. We find this type of grass waist-high in a neglected plot of suburbia.

Is this blatant commentary of our attempt to coexist with nature? Or is it a failing attempt to control nature without any regard for sustainability? I don’t think the work is didactic at all. Campbell is using an appropriate symbolic building block, a micro meditation of natural and artificial environment. The work on a whole arouses an emotional response stemming deeply from the environment of our youth.

Susan Goethel Campbell, "Resisting Certainty"  2014, Grand Rapids Art Museum

Susan Goethel Campbell, “Resisting Certainty”
2014, Grand Rapids Art Museum

Resisting Certainty is informed by the constructs of our cultural landscape. Information, by way of data, charts, graphs, and mass-produced construction are distilled into vacillating grounds of synthetic and organic planes, as a large topographical map. Yet, our movement through the installation is graceful, controlled by Campbell’s aesthetic ability. She clearly considers social interaction and bodily movement. At once I felt winged and limberly circling. Discovery was offered at every turn. Detail beckoned attention, banking around and through implied paths of organic and engineered spaces.

“My relationship to landscape has to do with impermanence, change and movement. My earliest influences and emotional epiphanies came from dance rather than visual art. The performances of Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, and Eric Hawkins were visual distillations of the body in time. This spoke to me. The movement was minimal, repetitious and sometimes glacial. In my late 20’s I fell in love with the Butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku. Their reference to the ground plane in their dance led me to consider cycles of renewal and decay in the landscape. This encompasses the built environment.”

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Campbell takes tradition and brings it into the current era. Her manipulation of landscape is an elegant form of printmaking. The plastic container is her matrix and every sod tile is a multiple, therefore a document of the container. Campbell earned a master’s degree in printmaking from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She has been awarded printmaking residencies in Belgium and Germany. She also taught studio art for 15 years at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. I think that printmaking is an appropriate adaptation here.

“Throughout my artistic career, I have been interested in process and the intersection of nature and culture. Trained as a printmaker, the idea of recording and transferring marks from one thing to another has shaped how I work and see the world to this day. A line can be formed from an insect chewing on a leaf or a backhoe bulldozing a new road through a forest. Both micro and macro views are visual marks on the landscape…My job is to bring a voice to the material.”

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The other works around the perimeter of the exhibit are just as contemplative. In Seasonal Flyers: Spring, Campbell repeats her systems on a much simpler yet still complex level. Tiny individual downy seeds of dandelion are harvested in an attempt to construct a single building block the size of a brick. Presented is a work so tenuous, so delicate that one more dandelion seed would topple it over. Closing in for a micro view, careening overtop to revel at Campbell’s precarious feat, I was most thankful for the protecting vitrine.

Campbell’s work summons reflection of the changing environment around us. Her methodology establishes a mode of interaction between people and landscape that provokes reciprocity, wonder, and gratitude. Perhaps she wants us to encounter her work as we should approach nature—respectfully discovering exactly how all its parts (ourselves included) belong.

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