Susan Crowder's Future Nature

“We’re all living in the biotech century. Our ability to engineer ourselves and our planet has become a reality and it’s being done with wild abandon motivated by self-interest,“ says Susan Crowder whose work focuses on serious issues facing the natural world like disappearing environments, genetic engineering and invasive species.

“Nature is being gobbled up and reprocessed to accommodate more people with more demanding ideas of how their lives can be ‘improved.’ And yet even as we embrace these new versions of ourselves, we are nostalgic for the way we think Nature used to be. We worry about how we’re degrading our planet through our own consumption and hope science can fix everything without too much inconvenience for us.”

Susan is the subject of a one-woman show at her alma mater Sweet Briar College’s Babcock Gallery, September 18 - November 19. The show will feature sculptural work from Susan’s series Ground Covers (developed while she was a Fellow at VCCA) as well as drawings from her Tropical Nature Studies that she has been working on since she began spending time in Florida, where she now lives. Prior to that, Susan and her husband lived for many years in the Charlottesville, Virginia area, but now divide their time between Florida and Maine. 

Tropical Nature Studies are vivid little paeans to the environment Susan now inhabits evoking the heat, color and jungle-like growth of plants that are exotic, vividly colored and charged with energy, so much so their proliferation seems at times frantic and unstoppable.

Though they resemble stylized flora or micro-organisms, Susan’s studies aren’t depictions of actual science, but rather her abstract ruminations on science. “As my interest in biotechnology has developed, my drawings have mutated from images of the observed environment to imagined images of our microenvironment.”

Susan’s style melds a sleek crispness with a distinctly handmade quality that invests the work with character and visual appeal. Her charmingly inspired patterns succeed in referencing microscopic slides, while maintaining a fanciful remove. Some, like “TNS003,” with its spiraling tendrils and little repeated blobs, have the decorative all-over effect of wallpaper—very unusual wallpaper, needless to say. “TNS006” reminds one of twisting ribbons of kelp, and “TNS017” demonstrates a flawless sense of composition, balancing an area of drawn information with a rich scarlet background that is allowed to have its own voice. Yet even as one is charmed by these delightful works, one can’t quite shake an underlying sense of menace. This feeling is quite intentional; Susan is trying to portray “frenzied, eerie but purposeful microbial movement.”

Sculpture has always played a significant role in Susan’s work. For a time, she created large-scale, site-specific installations out of straw that had the appearance of mass and solidity belying their rather tenuous building material. at once architectural and fragile.

Designed to degrade naturally over time from environmental forces, two were destroyed by intentionally set fires. After these incidents, Susan backed away from these works. “The arson kind of scared me, this conflict of culture with nature, it made me want to do something different, so I switched to plastic and to artificial nature.” Susan uses traditional media for her drawings: pencil, ink and Craypas. By contrast, all the materials in the sculptures—low-voltage cable, cable ties, deer netting, ping pong balls—can be bought at Home Depot. Susan’s colonizing Ground Cover sculptures are distinctly ominous. Attractive and repellent, they look like synthetic plants, “Suggesting a future,” Susan has written, “Where engineered plants replace natural ones.

“I have this feeling,” she tells me, “Nature is going to become more and more man-made, partly because we’re being so hard on it and partly because of bioengineering.” One hopes Susan is wrong about this, but even so, her vision of future nature is captivating: part, plant, part machine, pure inventiveness.


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