Susan Detwiler, Kenn Bass
13 January 2000 - 26 February 2000
Opening Reception 13 January 2000 8pm
For Susan Detwiler, the question is “Where does the life go when a living thing dies?” It’s a child’s question, I suppose. Certainly, there are religious answers to the child’s question: the spirit goes to heaven or hell, or is reincarnated, or escapes the cycle of birth and death. It’s common to say that somebody has “breathed his last” at the moment of death, an affirmation of an ancient notion of the identity of life and breath. The psyche – breath and soul in Greek – leaves the body and the body dies. Upon death, the spirit departs the body. “Spirit” also is a word for breath, derived from Latin and related to words like “inspire,” “respire,” and “conspire.” Breathing is certainly necessary for life in a fundamental biochemical sense, but it is also marvelously symbolic, a rhythmic exchange of the inside and the outside, a welcome penetration of the body by the air that surrounds us. If a bee were to sting Bass, he would literally and terminally become uninspired, suffer an artistic death. The bee would die, too, incidentally, though not the wasp. The species error in the title holds a small insect death in it.
What becomes of the life force after death? It’s a mad scientist, monster movie question. Zombies and Frankensteins are made of answers to such questions: the natural horror of becoming flesh that rots is replaced by the unnatural horror of flesh that does not rot. I hasten to add that Detwiler does not appear to concern herself with the story lines of, say, The X Filesin her work. Her attention is directed towards matters more ordinary and strange.
Although religion may offer answers to her question, Detwiler has in mind a secular, more contemporary frame for the inquiry. Our vocabulary of spirituality may reflect an ancient mystification of breathing, but the current state of life science lends greater credence to the essentiality of genetics to life. The life of the animal can be said to reside in its genes.
Even the rhythm of breathing is encoded there. If breathing is an exchange of the inside and the outside, genes do their work only inside the body, except in the important case of sexual reproduction. So where does life go when the creature dies? It’s still there to the extent that the genetic code is still there. At the climax of the film The Double Helix, the researchers Crick and Watson marvel at their DNA model: “It never dies!” The potential for life remains in the chemistry of the dead animal’s inert flesh. Zombies, immortality, Frankenstein, genetic engineering, recombinant DNA technologies and a sense of magic that mere matter can be alive at all commingle in a complex mythical system about life and death and our understanding of the natural world.
Bits of animal tissue have invaded sheets of exterior plywood siding that comprise Detwiler’s Horned Wall. Hair-on cowhide is fitted carefully into vertical grooves, and slices of horn from various North American mammals cluster in the randomly distributed knot holes. Although the wood and animals that make up the sculpture are long dead, an echo of unruly life remains in their organic chemistry. In the manufacture of plywood, felled trees are sliced into sheets which are then laminated using animal hide glue. Detwiler’s wall suggests the persistence of a life force even in these much processed materials. Digested and reconstituted in the artist’s studio, a form of primal life information regenerates itself in irrational configurations.
The minimal form of the wall, an opaque slab of a barrier, suggests a metaphor for death, beyond which there is no eschatological certainty. The barrier is permeable only one way; Detwiler’s choice of living things die; that’s it. And yet her choosing knot holes as the sites of a crazy neo-organic emergence hints at a return from beyond death. There are imperfect openings, like ossified orifices, in the wall. True, what returns is not what died, but something of the life that animated this matter before its industrial transformation to inert building material remains, and it is that latent vitality that Detwiler targets.
Her suite of small sculptures collectively called Tail Flowers arose out of another earlier piece titled Rear Wall, which consisted of a random array of animal tails the artist removed from roadkill carcasses she found on the highways around her rural home. This wall constituted a sarcastic parody of the standard hunting lodge display of trophy heads, giving the viewers a look at the other side of the coin, so to speak. The very idea of roadkill is darkly comic in itself, a sophomoric joke on tragic, heroic death. If ever there is a contest for the best root metaphor to describe this dying century, from world wars to Roland Barthes’s demise to Wile E. Coyote’s idiotic cartoon splat, roadkill will surely place high in the polls. Yet crushing death, a pitiful animal’s panicked flight straight into the wheels of an automobile, turns on itself in Detwiler’s sculptures and is made to suggest the material continuity of the information of life. As the animal flees into death only its flag-like tail remains in the realm of life, intimating a potential living. Life attaches itself to desiccated flesh like a material memory.
With the Tail Flowers, she assembles her roadkill animal parts into weird clusters that resemble any number of creatures. Flowers, yes, but also insects, hairy spiders, and mutant mammals come to mind. By naming them flowers, Detwiler underscores the concept of their growth. It’s a sure sign of life: they bloom, sprouting “full blown” from the wall. Flowers are the reproductive parts of plants, the sexual means by which they exchange genetic information. Flowers are also commonly associated with human sexuality in general and with genitals in particular. As a matter of fact, tails are, too.
The genetic coupling referenced in her flowers is randomized. It is free to ignore species’ boundaries. Animals become plant-like. Predators mix with prey. In an orgy of spontaneous genetic combinations and recombinations, that transpires on the molecular level of proteins and DNA, persistent, unpredictable life reinvents itself, generating novel organisms and organizations. Impossible creatures dream themselves into being without the aid of any mad scientist. The inner workings of genes take on the penetrating characteristics of the breathing that gives us the word “spirit.” Hybridizations and the mixing of life information across biological kingdoms constitute in themselves multiple exchanges of the insides with the outsides of the many organisms Detwiler enlists to her cause.
– Michael Odom
Michael Odom is a painter and critic who lives in Texas. His most recent one-man show was at Project Gallery in Wichita, Kansas. His art criticism has appeared in Artforum, Art Papers, The New Art Examiner, and other publications, including numerous museum and gallery catalogues.
Susan Detwiler was born in Augusta, Georgia and currently lives in a rural area of Southern Ontario. She received her B.F.A. from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1987, and recently completed an M.F.A. at the University of Guelph. Susan is an emerging artist who works in sculpture and installation. She teaches part-time at both university and high school levels.
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