When Susan Goethel Campbell discarded some ornamental wheat grass that failed to thrive in her studio, she popped it from its plastic container and tossed it outside, finding that its tight roots surprisingly retained the container’s shape for the duration of the winter. This inspired Campbell’s ongoing Grounds series, installations for which she manipulates sod and grass into geometric forms. Resisting Certainty, her latest Grounds project, fills one of the larger galleries of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, addressing the human imprint on nature and calling attention to some surprisingly similar parallels between organic and synthetic environments.
The first thing viewers encounter is a brick made entirely of dandelion fluff. Calling it a “key to the entire exhibition,” Campbell explains, “The seed is a matrix for the plant but is shown in mass and shaped like a brick. This single unit of building can be multiplied to metaphorically reference the city. Both the seed and the brick allude to a larger cyclical field of growth and decline.”[i] Bricks are a recurrent motif throughout much of her work, generally signifying urban sprawl. In this context, Campbell suggests that there is something almost organic about the way cities grow.
Bricks of sod fill most of the gallery space. To create these, Campbell allowed grass to grow in discarded plastic food containers. Removed from their casings and flipped upside-down, the resultant forms betray the emphatically synthetic contours of the mass-produced containers they grew in, creating a visual dissonance between the natural roots, earth, and soil and the explicit artificiality of their plastic casings. Laid across the gallery space in a grid, these pieces of earth create a network of rigidly geometric squares that evoke a carpet of bricks, or perhaps even a cityscape seen from above.
Campbell’s multimedia prints surround the installation, inspired by her aerial photographs of cities at night. These nocturnal cityscapes depict city lights that seem to have grown and spread across the land like an organic substance. They ironically respond to the rigidity of the geometric forms imposed on the sod and grass, blurring the boundaries between the natural and fabricated worlds.
Campbell addresses the footprint we leave on the environment, but, as is her custom, she avoids high-volume guilt-trips. Instead, she approaches this with a sense of whimsicality (Detroit Cloudspotting and Portraits of Air, for example, addressed the serious problem of air pollution through fun, interactive, crowd-sourced projects).
Resisting Certainty manages to articulate its conceptual point while remaining visually absorbing (And how on earth does allthat dandelion fluff stay together?). Campbell gets us thinking and looking a bit more closely at how we shape our environment. Indeed, anyone from a city or suburb will affirm that nature, wherever it is to be found (be it a flower-box, front lawn, traffic island, or public park), really does seem to only come in squares.
Resisting Certainty is on view at the Grand Rapids Art Museum until June 1.
[i] Email correspondence with the artist, March 29, 2014.