Born Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1956 / BFA, Alma College; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan
Field Guide was the name of a recent show at Oakland University by Susan Goethel Campbell that included selections from several major bodies of work, spanning an array of media, including video, prints, and sculpture, and more than a decade of artistic efforts. The show’s title is fitting in many respects. First, a field guide acts as an index for the natural world, introducing the viewer to flora, fauna, and other recognizable patterns in a specific environment—which is the general subject of Campbell’s work. With various “movements” concerning air, pollen, turf, and leaf samples—to name a few—Campbell meticulously tracks the natural world at work.
Secondly, the field guide suggests navigation of an ecosystem, and there is a distinct consciousness of ecoconnectedness in Campbell’s work. Not only does she display an obsessive interest in charting intersections of nature, culture, and technology, such as air pollution, airplane flight paths, and urban patterns of heat and light emissions, her various arcs tend to layer easily upon each other to form a total picture of an environment—specifically her native Michigan, with a focus on the Detroit metro area, where she has lived and worked for decades. Indeed, it might be argued that Campbell’s versatility with medium is a tool that enables her to approach the formulation of her environment from many different directions.
Exploration is itself the subject of the newest works in Field Guide, or, at least, explorers, with the 2015 Old Stand series (which evolved out of an earlier series, begun in 2007). Black-and-white gesso-faded portraits feature turn-of-the-century gentleman explorers posing with Victorian aplomb against the vistas of their travels—the field guide being, of course, the indispensable tool of the intrepid explorer, utilized in the specific identification of established elements of environments. Campbell readily draws upon natural objects as touchstones of her practice, building long-standing relationships with specific patterns of wood grain, or dropping ink-dipped Christmas trees from a ladder to form a graphic base for Seasonal Print: Winter, no. 1 (2012), for example. So too, the field guide mirrors Campbell’s pure and obvious love of taxonomy, with 2011’s Book of Leaves—sheets and sheets of specimen-mounted leaf collections iterated as stand-alone pieces, following Botanical Prints, a 2007 series that equates the layout of their vasculature with principles of urban planning. “Maple leaves are very much how an engineer would plan a city,” Campbell can assure us with confidence, having collaborated with urban planners from University of Michigan on the project.
Indeed, far from the lone-wolf image of the solitary explorer, Campbell’s projects contain increasingly social aspects: distributing air filters for people to place experimentally in areas they believe to be dense with air pollution; creating Cloudspotting Detroit (2010), a guide for Detroit tourists (she accompanied its launch with guided bike tours) that designates the best cloud-watching places in the city, as well as cheekily referencing the steam clouds that emit from the pavement and various “savory clouds” created by barbeque pits. As with many of her projects, Campbell took to the field for hands-on exploration of the source, arranging a tour at Detroit’s Water and Sewage Department to track the provenance of the ubiquitous steam clouds. She obsessively filmed the flight patterns of airplanes above her house for the Big Sky Theory video project (2011).
The final aspect of Campbell’s very open-ended observations of her natural and artificial environment: her work serves as a set of guidelines for navigation of our world but imposes little restraint or direction on the viewer in terms of their conclusions. Even in work such as Detroit Weather: 365 Days (2011), a series of time- lapse footage of Detroit’s weather patterns in three directions from a camera placed at the top of the Fisher Building, though inadvertently revealing the impact of industrial emissions on the natural clouds, Campbell refrains from overtly political gestures, instead opting, in field-guide fashion, to generally delineate the parameters of the known, making it all the more clear for viewers to recognize a new connection when it is encountered.
Sarah Rose Sharp, March 2015
Copyright Essay’d 2015