Cirrus … cumulus … nimbus — names for happenings in the upper reaches of the air, terms we learned in science class, giving us a new way to think about the bunches and striations that as kids we called “cotton puffs,” “smoke trails,” “sky pizza” or “gates of heaven.” One of the most powerful fuels for the poetic imagination, the sky (and what goes on there) is the main focus of artist Susan Goethel Campbell’s latest show at Lemberg Gallery in Ferndale. Only her metaphoric visions are directed elsewhere than the traditional sublime.
Campbell, who teaches printmaking and book design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, has created a series of images that play off each other to propose a discourse on man’s very direct influence on the heavens above and the earth below. Though a series of six large renderings on paper titled Swimming in Wyoming (wispy, ethereal cross-sections of clouds and sky) captures our attention as we enter the gallery, there seems to be more at work in them than just Nature’s hand. It’s as if the vaporous forms have been sculpted by some unknown force with aesthetics in mind — and as if Campbell, though documenting what she actually saw in Wyoming, can’t help but echo the famous clouds of Man Ray and René Magritte, suggesting that her reality involves a subtle surreality. As kids we thought the shapes in the sky were sculptures; as art-conscious adults we just can’t get that idea out of our heads.
But on two other walls, a wittily titled series of “cloud studies” depicts a more sinister beauty. Rendered magnificently in brushed ink on paper, these pieces juxtapose clouds of industrial emission with lovely masses of celestial mist that we trust have nothing noxious about them. The locations of the factories spewing smoke are identified in the titles — Cloud Study #2 (Paris), Cloud Study #5 (Detroit) and Cloud Study #7 (Amsterdam) — implying that the ecology of these places has been irrevocably altered, with nature co-opted and replaced by postindustrial culture. The contrast is enough to make us pause before a gorgeous piece titled Stratus and wonder — is that a real cloud or just factory gas?
The most brutal ironies of Campbell’s show, however, are spread out on the gallery’s longest wall. Her elegant handmade edition of prints, After the Deluge, sits on a pedestal as a prelude to splaying its vibrant innards out to be read. Though at first the accompanying texts (sampled from cut-up newspaper and magazine copy) seem all too obvious, their import hits home as we stroll the length of the book. Jumping off from the fable of Noah’s Ark, Campbell gives us a visually mediated jolt of ecopolitics — animals are going mad in their desperate attempts to survive man’s invasion of their habitats. In the end, she leaves us little to do but think (not bad, that).
The last seven years have been a watershed for Campbell. She has responded to more frequent invitations to show and increasing critical recognition with a stunning technical virtuosity at the service of a meticulous project. Her ground-level political awareness — folding into an ongoing meditation on land and life — is embodied in a pair of Zen-like wood sculptures (Squaring I and II) that tell us that the road is long, the task infinite and the wages boundless.
Susan Goethel Campbell’s New Work is at Lemberg Gallery (23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale) through Oct. 19. Campbell will give a gallery talk at 7 p.m. on Wed., Oct. 9. Call 248-591-6623.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org