It is easy to be sidetracked by the Play-Doh and spit.
It's easy to be charmed, and perhaps a little spooked, by the fact that Susan Robb made tiny biological-world sculptures out of Play-Doh and spit and food and her own hair, which is why lots of people call her a kind of mad scientist with a penchant for the icky and the gooey, and let it go at that.
But these sculptures--the heart of (MAG. X 28) Macro-fauxology, a series of 36 images of these bio-worlds that Robb photographed through a macro lens (so that the tiny worlds appear monumental) and printed in unbelievably luscious and saturated and intense colors--are a sly overlay of fact and fiction, an artist's rendering of genetic samples, spores, and other microscopic views, and are not, as has been written, entirely the product of the artist's imagination, but are exhaustively researched and based in actual fact. And that these worlds seem almost familiar--corresponding to something we think we know about how biology works, and to what we think it ought to look like (a little bit scientific, a little bit wonderland, a lot gooey, a large part something we couldn't have imagined at all)--but still entirely surprising is part of the series' achievement.
These images are part of the traveling show Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics, curated by Robin Held for the Henry Art Gallery and currently showing at the Berkeley Art Museum, alongside other works, by artists such as Eduardo Kac and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, that look into the shady area between knowledge and imagination. (In a review of Gene(sis) after its Henry opening in 2002, New York Times writer Steven Henry Madoff called Robb's work "paradoxically gorgeous.") Macro-fauxology in particular is an amazing response to the way genetic science looms in our lives, so present and relevant and vital, but so occult and kind of marginal, something that's crucial to our bodies but that we can barely imagine. Held has praised Robb's "restless intelligence and imagination," and the resulting sculpture that is "sense-surprising, endearing, thought-altering."
This territory--what we can barely imagine, but suspect is there--is a territory that Robb gleefully inhabits. She often seems to have access to information we don't have, instruments for finding, hearing, seeing things--the drama of paint flakes and twigs in the corners of an old warehouse (in large-scale photographs also inhabited by curiously organic blobs in bright colors), the back-and-forth conversation of a pair of dust bunnies (who croon to each other in passages of electronic bleeps)--that no one else thought to invent. Life is suggested in places you might not think to look, such as in long, knitted appendages that drip water kind of sadly into a pile of dirt (a variation plinks musically into miked containers), or a puffy inflatable pillow, fashioned out of the ripstop ballistic stuff that outdoor gear is made of and strapped to a multidirectional rescue sled. And these ideas and works, while certainly possessing of a lot of charm, are also more subversive than not--a motion against taking for granted what is offered to us by way of limits, or what science tells us is true, or what is sold to us in the many guises that things are sold.
Robb, who grew up in Connecticut and went to Syracuse University, arrived in Seattle (like so many of us did) after college, with her boyfriend and their rock band, Incredible Force of Junior. She's owned a restaurant, worked for a dot-com company that soared and then crashed, and earned an MFA from the UW. Now in her mid-30s, Robb still looks much as she did when I met her years ago, sort of an acid-flashed Holly Golightly, both contained and energetic, with eyes that are all sorts of blue and gray, and look right at you when you're talking. She can apply this intensity to almost anything--to art, to conversation, to walking around downtown in a bunny suit--and it all seems of a piece with the kinds of work she creates. When Robb arrived at a 2001 opening for a Fuzzy Engine exhibition with a pair of goats (a reference to the work she was showing, a giant handmade afghan with her e-mail address "goatmax1" knitted into it over and over again), she stole the show not just because of the spectacle--you should have seen how hard it was to get the goats, named Nigel and Clyde, up the stairs of the old office building--but because she had gone beyond simply contributing art for the show's theme, "mania." She had embodied it with a gesture that was unexpected, weirdly generous, and a little nuts.
In addition to the micro-worlds of Macro-fauxology and the dust bunnies of Sonitus Mirabile Inventi (Sounds Magically Discovered), Robb has ventured into more large-scale work and performance (she loves to perform--hence the bunny suit--although there is often a dimly uncomfortable sense about these works that they are not entirely performance). Her 2001 installation, Seedling, was stunning: a 15-foot-square forest of tall, pale stalks (unaccountably like what happens when potatoes sprout in the dark) bearing, like fruit, tiny video monitors playing a loop of animated and somewhat abstracted reproductive processes. When I saw Seedling at the First Christian Church on Broadway as part of 911 Media Arts Center's New Works Laboratory (it was later installed at the Henry), it was shown in dim light, so that the stalks gave off a sort of luminescent glow from the video loop and a larger monitor in the center of the installation, like a campfire, and as you walked through this little patch of forest, the stalks swayed and bounced as a result of your presence in and movement through them. For the opening, Robb sprayed the installation with a kind of eau de dirt. Seedling was not to look at, it was to walk through and inhabit and live.
At last year's Burning Man, Robb produced her busiest and most complicated work to date, a dinner theater that took place under a cluster of 17-foot-wide lighted jellyfish forms and involved multiple performers, sculptural objects, and food. This was You Are My Zooplankton, Come Closer, which Robb created with Steven Miller, Steven Stone, Andy Peel, and Ashok Mudholkar, and with participation from lots of other artists such as d. K. Pan and the Infernal Noise Brigade. Zooplankton was a spectacle that drew on the Japanese culture of what's known as the pleasure-laden "floating world" of entertainers and courtesans. Guests were served by Butoh zombie waiters, ate sushi prepared by Pan (somehow, there in the middle of the Black Rock Desert), had their powdered miso soup hydrated by a geisha who peed hot water through a dildo, and were entertained by a pirate marching band, octopus cunnilingus, and landlocked synchronized swimming.
That all these things could coexist in a single work--absurd, wildly intelligent, and divergent, but somehow whole--is typical of Robb's highly specific imagination. Meg Shiffler, the former director of visual art at Consolidated Works, calls Robb "the epitome of the post-medium artist--she isn't defined by any of the various media she uses, but rather by the concepts that run through her work," which means that it often seems like art is only a single possible channel for Robb's lively mind. I asked her one time how she saw all the different manifestations of her work--the sculpture, the knitting, the goats, the music, the Burning Man installations--and she was quiet for some time before answering. "It's all about making," she finally said. "I make things. Makemakemakemakemake."