The first time I saw Susan Robb's work, I was mildly interested. It was seven years ago, in a dark church on Broadway, and she'd rigged up a rickety glowing forest of tall tubes with a tiny video monitor on top of each one. What played on the videos was lightly mesmerizing, some abstracted biological processes in motion, and there was soft material underfoot. But over the years, I kept having these experiences with single pieces—a photograph here, an installation there—that were more or less just fine. I began to dread the occasion of Robb's upcoming solo show at Lawrimore Project. I knew I'd have to contend with the fact that another group of editors, before I worked here, felt strongly enough about Robb's art to name her a Stranger Genius in 2003, but I'd never felt it. What did paintings of blue monsters from Second Life have to do with a mad-science video of a man's arm implanted with tiny trees, or with juicy macro-lens photographs of constructed "organisms," or with knitted tubes coming out of the wall? Robb's art seemed to me an acute case of circling the center.
I was five works into Robb's new Lawrimore Project show last week when I realized she'd hit the center. Either something has jelled in her work, or this is its most coherent presentation so far, or both. As weird as it sounds, this is the show Robb won the Genius Award for—this is the show somebody knew she had in her. It's not just a gathering of her strongest stuff. It's thematically tight, made up mostly of new works and newly refined versions of recent works. In a variety of mediums and in a palpable range of temperatures, as though it had its own climate system—fluctuating from hot-pink desert rocks and a campfire to freezing-cold white crystals with shivering Mylar blossoms—the show explains what Robb has been trying to do all this time.
Formally, the consistent thread in Robb's work is that she is a colorist. She prefers hues associated with artificial colors and preservatives, only occasionally choosing the muted colors traditionally associated with landscape or nature—especially wooded Pacific Northwestern nature. But the choice is more than formal; her use of hot colors is like her use of up-to-date technology. It's a way of harnessing, collapsing, and expanding collective fantasies about human progress. A field of plants that actually clean the soil (hyperaccumulators, used by artist Mel Chin in the 1990s) looks like creepy candy in Robb's flat digital rendering. That print hangs near a floor installation of mini-speakers on stalks that broadcast the whispered words "it's in the air" and "it's in the water." Art as land laundering (see also: Olympic Sculpture Park) has been going on for a while, and this is its dark echo voice.
Robb's art has a bit of a reputation for being contrarian (to erase herself from a 2006 show she felt was being curated irresponsibly, she created a piece involving repetition of the text "I'm not here, this isn't happening"), but the reversals in this show are subtle. Take Digester, a row of crude biodigesters said to contain the shit of dealer Scott Lawrimore. Through a system of 55-gallon drums and tubes, the shit is broken down into methane gas, which powers a campfire on the floor of the gallery. (Marshmallows are available for roasting.) The early buzz on this work saw it as an institutional critique, a punishment and test of the art dealer: make him walk to work for months carrying a wide-necked mason jar full of his own crap, which Lawrimore is doing. But Digester isn't really that feisty. The sadism is processed as clean as the shit, which goes unseen and unsmelled. And despite what the label says, the artist contributed her own shit along with Lawrimore's, as well as manure provided by local zookeepers, to keep the fire burning. It's not an inside-art joke, it's a gentle biotech metaphor that reverses time. New-fangled "green" drummage fuels an ancient technology—fire. We've come full, fucked-up circle. Which dreams of primitivism does the "green" movement trigger and feed?
And how does art fit in, anyway? In a cuttingly winsome sculpture called Using De Maria's Lightning Rods, the Animals Stage a Valiant Surrender, a 14-foot gleaming steel rod built to exact specifications from De Maria's 1977 earthwork is thrust into a pile of pink and orange acrylic and mirrored "boulders." A white flag of wired-up feathers and fur flies from the top of the rod. The same week Robb's show opened, the cover of Time magazine paired the headline "How to Win the War on Global Warming" with a tree being thrust into the earth in an alteration of the 1945 photograph of marines planting the American flag on Iwo Jima. Meanwhile, art has been working "green" territory for years, and is way beyond the binary logic of war. Robb's sculpture takes into account the discomfort that you feel when you look at that Iwo Jima image now with supposedly global eyes. The sculpture asks: If we're fighting for the planet, how would a work of art join the "valiant" side? When is art nature? When humans are animals? Robb plainly doesn't believe in the human animal's ability to make peace with the rest of nature—not unless we stop defining ourselves as outsiders and defining "nature" as an extension of what we want.
Valiant Surrender's proud thrust contrasts with two small sculptures, Racing Towards Hardness Is a Kind of Softness and The Gentlest Gesture. In her studio, Robb grew crystals on sakura branches and attached silver and purple Mylar blossoms to the branches using a green circuit board and a hair-thin "muscle" wire (a wire that actually shortens in length, or contracts like a muscle, when it is electrically powered). Every few seconds, the blossoms are programmed to twitch slightly, as though they were dreaming of being real, outside in the wind. They're plugged in instead.
Maybe the greatest revelation in the show is a digital video made from Robb's public installation last summer, Warmth, Giant Black Toobs. For the live installation (scheduled to happen again in Idaho, Montana, Texas, Hawaii, New Jersey, and New York in 2009), Robb turned a grassy lawn in Volunteer Park into a field of 50-foot-long black stalks buoyed by sun and wind like a big plastic colony rippling underwater. On screen, with a staticky remix by Robb of music by the artist Shuttle 358, the black forms look unbelievable, as though they've been Photoshopped into the landscape, or drawn in, or like time has been slowed down in the filming. Actually, nothing has been added or changed. What you see are just black plastic garbage bags—environmental foes—repurposed into magical creatures from a world that's already way beyond what "greening" can fix, for better and for worse.