Watered Down: Issues That Run Two Ways

Exhibit at Garrison Art Center through June 21

By Amy Lipton

Longtime friends Suzan Shutan of New Haven, Connecticut, and Susan Knight of Omaha, Nebraska, met 20 years ago when Shutan was a fellow at the Bemis Foundation in Omaha. They admired each other’s work and found similarities in their mutual interest in artistic expression related to the natural world. At that time they began a discussion about collaborating and in 2011 decided to join forces and create an exhibition together. Their first installation took place at the Norfolk Art Center in Nebraska in 2012; the Garrison Art Center represents their second project.

Shutan and Knight have a current site-specific installation, Watered Down: Issues That Run Two Ways. It includes various suspended and freestanding sculptural components. At first glance, the work has a lighthearted, pop-art quality. The sculptures are made of pedestrian up-cycled materials such as plastic drinking straws, tar-roofing paper, pom-poms and Tyvek. These art works fill the space with an airy touch making use of walls, ceiling and floor in bright festive colors.

Detail of work by Susan Knight from "Watered Down: Issues That Run Two Ways"

Detail of work by Susan Knight from ”Watered Down: Issues That Run Two Ways”

However, upon closer inspection (and with a little reading of wall labels) one learns that these seemingly fanciful works of art have an underlying message. The goal is for viewers to experience insight into our area’s challenges to balance multiple water uses. The artists have researched in depth and interpreted scientific data from pie charts, graphs and maps about the water quality in the Hudson River watershed with a focus on New York state’s stewardship of the river.

This strategy of enticing the viewer through playful means and seductive color toward a deeper appreciation and understanding of environmental issues is not a new one, but it can be effective. Shutan and Knight manage to captivate and hold our interest in the aesthetic aspects of their work via their decorative use of unconventional materials. As artists first and foremost, this is important; only then can the work lead us toward understanding the deeper meaning and interpretation intended, allowing the viewing experience to become a provocative one.

The works in the exhibition include Water Bank Boogie, a large wall installation by Knight. It is comprised of several individually hand-cut rounds of paper sandwiched between layers of Tyvek painted with acrylic ink. These round shapes in red, yellow, gray and green are the same colors used by hydrogeologists to color-code soil samples of clay, gravel, sand and silt.

Atoms in the Water, also by Knight, uses reflective Tyvek on paper with applied Mylar dots hand-cut to the shape of the Hudson River watershed. Cut into the surface of the sculpture are patterns of the atomic signature of elements for which the Hudson is tested, such as iron, black nitrogen, aluminum, radon, manganese and fluorine.

Detail from Impaired Waters Lower Hudson River,  part of an installation by Suzan Shutan

Detail from Impaired Waters Lower Hudson River, part of an installation by Suzan Shutan

Shutan has created a large geometric floor installation titled Detrimental Sips using plastic drinking straws. The formal arrangement of the straws refers loosely to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome structures and illustrates the interconnectivity and interdependency of all of life’s relationship to water. Taken from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the different colored straws represent various problematic issues due to municipal discharge, urban storm runoff, agriculture, septic system discharges, erosion and more.

Vertically Challenged, another work by Shutan, uses stainless steel wire, colored pom-poms and painter’s tape to represent lake / reservoir, river / stream, and estuary waters from Hudson, New York, to Manhattan. The size and placement of the pom-poms represents different impacts of impaired sediment.

A suspended corner installation, titled River That Flows Two Ways, also by Shutan, consists of a meandering, intricate wave of cut patterns using tar-roofing paper. It reflects the tidal river system of the Hudson and the communities alongside it. Made from petroleum and oil, the tar paper alludes to the recent oil spill in the Hudson River.

Knight has shown her environmental art, in which she creates visual perceptions of water and interprets patterns that reference ecological issues and water stories. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she earned a BFA in art from St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, and attended the University of Notre Dame, the Glassell School of Art, Houston, and the School of the Chicago Art Institute.

Shutan creates three-dimensional and relief-based works that repurpose common materials, manipulating and transforming them into colorful sweeping patterns about systems found in nature. Shutan received a BFA from California Institute of the Arts and an MFA from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

To learn more about the artists, visit susanknightart.com and suzanshutan.com.


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2 thoughts on “Watered Down: Issues That Run Two Ways

  1. We consider being on the banks of the Hudson in the Garrison Art Center the perfect venue for our show Watered Down: Issues That Run Two Ways. We are very grateful to the GAC staff for their support and grateful to everyone who came to our artist reception.

  2. Thank you, Amy, for an informative article and thank you, Suzan and Susan, for such a powerful show.

    Carinda Swann, Director
    Garrison Art Center