Susan Crowder’s art anticipates a future where technology and nature converge.
Courtesy of Susan Crowder
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 71-year-old artist Susan Crowder, whose work focuses on serious issues facing the natural world: 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,’” explains Crowder. “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.”
Crowder’s work will be exhibited in a new one-woman show running Sept. 18 through Nov. 19 at Sweet Briar College’s Babcock Gallery. The show features sculptures from her series “Ground Covers,” as well as drawings from “Tropical Nature Studies”—a collection that she has been working on since the Sweet Briar grad and former Charlottesville resident began spending time in Florida, where she has lived part of each year since 2012.
“Tropical Nature Studies” are vivid little paeans to the environment Crowder now inhabits, where the plants are exotic, vividly colored and charged with energy; so much so that their proliferation seems at times frantic and unstoppable.
Though they resemble stylized flora or micro-organisms, Crowder’s studies aren’t depictions of actual science but rather her abstract ruminations on science. Says the artist, “As my interest in biotechnology has developed, my drawings have mutated from images of the observed environment to imagined images of our microenvironment.”
Crowder’s style ingeniously 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 the images found in 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. “TNS006” reminds one of twisting ribbons of kelp, and “TNS017” demonstrates a consummate sense of composition, balancing an area of drawn information with a rich scarlet background that is allowed to have its own voice.
Even as one is charmed by Crowder’s delightful works and almost whimsical patterns, one can’t quite shake an underlying sense of menace. This feeling is quite intentional; Crowder is trying, she says, to portray “frenzied, eerie but purposeful microbial movement.”
Sculpture has always played a significant role in Crowder’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 tenuous building material. Designed to degrade naturally over time from environmental forces, two of the installations, one on Roosevelt Island in New York City, and one at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, were destroyed by intentional fires in 1993 and 1994, respectively. After these incidents, Crowder 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.”
Crowder uses traditional media for her drawings: pencil, ink and Cray-pas. In contrast, all the materials used for her sculptures—low-voltage cable, cable ties, deer netting, ping pong balls—can be bought at Home Depot.
The Babcock Gallery, where Crowder’s work will be displayed, is located in the Babcock Fine Arts Center, home to the Sweet Briar theater, music and dance programs. “I am taken by her bright vibrant palette,” says Karol Lawson, gallery director, of Crowder, “and intrigued by how she takes industrial material like extension cords and makes it into something thatlooks organic.”
Crowder’s colonizing “Ground Cover” sculptures are distinctly ominous. Attractive and repellent at the same time, they look like synthetic plants, “Suggesting a future,” Crowder has written, “in which natural plants are replaced by engineered ones.”
“I have this feeling,” she says, “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 Crowder is wrong about this, but even so, her vision of future nature is captivating: part plant, part machine, pure inventiveness.