Artist Susan Smith Trees manipulates polyurethane expandable foam for her work in “Roots.”
Artist Susan Smith Trees manipulates polyurethane expandable foam for her work in “Roots.” Credit: Ashleigh Pastor

My God, I love a fleshy piece of artwork. When artists make works that are burgeoning and mysterious, I’m immediately drawn to them like white on rice. So, I’ll go ahead and say I’m a little biased when it comes to Susan Smith Trees’s work.

The Chicago-based artist has been making work for 35 years. Her show “Roots” opened this month at the Evanston Art Center’s (EAC) second floor atrium gallery. In the gallery, Trees’s expandable foam wall reliefs hang delicately and pronounced. They appear otherworldly and mysterious. They demand attention.

For Trees, material drives her process. “I have always been stimulated by a variety of materials. The experimentation is the key to discovery,” she explains. Trees began her sculpture practice with clay and has expanded to working with stone, cast resin, thermoplastic, expandable foam, as well as pen and ink drawings.

By manipulating the form, Trees’s sculptures look at abstraction and draw from the form of the human body. The bulbous, frothing pieces appear veiny and alive. The lumps hang on the walls of the gallery, bursting with life as the sculptures contract, bubble, and grow like organisms under a microscope. These orifices are detailed, yet I’m unsure of what they remind me of. I describe them as human forms, something removed from a body, but are they? While they appear to be living and breathing, the works aren’t one particular body part or one particular organ. They queer the body and disrupt our idea of nature.

Not all of Trees’s sculptures are textured with detail. The work Stretch is less crinkled and more polished. In fact, it’s smooth and onyx in color. It rests on a pedestal, appearing like a membrane or a cell under a microscope. Still referencing bodily qualities, this work appears in mid-motion as it curves upward from the floor. Worm-like and slinking, Stretch is in the spotlight on its white podium.

On the walls and hanging from the ceiling are Trees’s expandable foam sculptures. I’ve worked extensively with expandable foam in my own practice so I know how this material takes on a life of its own. It’s sticky, messy, it gets on everything, and it bulges at such a rapid pace that you have to let go of any control.

I’m curious about Trees’s process and how she works with a material that defies authority and takes on its own shape. Trees tells me that she begins by spraying polyurethane expandable foam into piles. Because the foam expands quickly, she explains that before it hardens, she peels it away, stretches it, and tears the material to create rippled forms. She says she enjoys the unpredictability. “By the act of manipulating the material, I experiment and explore the possibilities and witness what is revealed.” In a way, Trees collaborates with the material. She navigates most of the direction that it will take, but ultimately the foam will do what the foam wants to do.

Her thermoplastic works are made up of melted plastic which she heats in water. “When the material obtains a leathery consistency, I remove it from the water and soak it in paint,” she says. “As it hardens the color becomes embedded in the substance. I then reheat the material using the same procedure. When it becomes of a malleable consistency, I shape it over molds of rocks and wood and earthenware. As the material dries, it is kneaded and rolled and pulled to create biomorphic-like forms.” Trees’s work is very tangible, very process-focused.

Having this sort of freedom in art-making is refreshing. Much like our body forms, each work takes on a unique shape. Whether they are on the walls or hanging from the ceiling, Trees’s sculptures appear heavy and prominent. In fact, the viewer may not realize it, but expandable foam is very light in weight. In the same way that she manipulates the physical form of the works, the presentation is also manipulated. These works appear foreign in material and hang delicately along the walls of the gallery inviting viewers to peer longer and deeper inside. They are displayed like magnified organisms—both earthly and alien—on the white gallery walls. The relationship between material and artist is obvious. Trees’s closeness with her works is apparent, although some distance is necessary as these materials forge their own paths. This is what makes the works so strong. While Trees is the creator, the sculptures conclude their metamorphoses.

“I put my trust in the materials,” Trees says, “because they put me in touch with the known.”   v