Exhibition review: Susan Jacobs, Buxton Contemporary

Part of Jacobs’ latest solo exhibition is to question whether it’s the world as we ‘know’ it or the world as we ‘see’ it.

What does it take to understand the universe? Science, technology, philosophy… or perhaps in the wildest of thoughts, art?

When I walked into the cinemas to watch Everything and Everywhere All at Once, I didn’t know what to expect, but its bursts of whimsical humour and nuanced explorations of the universe(s) alongside all the chaos had me captivated from the get-go.

It’s an experience that resurfaced at Buxton Contemporary with the latest solo exhibition of Susan Jacobs, The ants are in the idiom.

Harnessing the speculative aura of a mid-experiment science lab and the mystic of a wunderkammer, objects and installations are informed by Jacobs’ observations of her surroundings, but one that offers more than a naturalistic remake.

Here the ’human lens’ walks between a tightrope of knowledge and ignorance, sometimes mistaking observation for causation as in A Recipe for Scorpions (2021) and other times rendering sophisticated prompts from etymology as in We Fill the World with Cracks (2022).

The exhibition’s centrepiece, Market Fray (2020-22) is dense with ancient knowledge as well as contemporary symbolism.

Leading the way into this spread of assemblages is Pasteur’s Grapes Inverted as The Lovers, a fermentation model used by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822-95) upturned by Jacobs to resemble René Magritte’s The Lovers (1928).

Indeed, many of Jacobs’ seemingly everyday sculptures embody the Surrealist attitude in ways that are essentially quirky but also deeply epistemological.

Susan Jacobs, A Recipe for Scorpions, 2021. Installation view at Buxton Contemporary. Photo: ArtsHub.

This exploration of knowledge also informs both A Recipe for Scorpions and A Recipe for Mice.

In the former, the comical folly of turning bricks into scorpions is staged like an interrogation – slabs of clay sitting under blaring heat lamps until they offer up a reasonable explanation for a century-long misunderstanding.

But the exhibition is just as much an array of visual riddles as it is a series of wordplay, where one neither excludes or over-intellectualises the other.

One of the exemplary works playing on this through visual cueing is Cope (Tree) (2022), inspired by the resemblance of sycamore seeds Jacobs saw during walks in the surrounding neighbourhood of London where she now resides.

Do ’signs from the universe’ lead us astray or do they offer a glimpse into ourselves? Perhaps in some extraordinarily down-to-earth way, Jacobs offers us a telescope called art.

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The notion of bringing together observation and imagination is further expanded beyond Jacobs’ practice in Buxton’s upstairs gallery, a group exhibition also curated by Jacqueline Doughty, Still Life.

The smaller but similarly rich show brings together 11 artists including Mikala Dwyer, Isadora Vaughan, John Wolseley and Jahnne Pasco-White, paired with objects and curios from University of Melbourne’s Herbarium collection.

Here nature takes prominence but its interpretation is guided by the artists in a myriad of forms, combined with scientific methodologies.

Overall, The ants are in the idiom covers the scope of Jacobs’ practice without being a drawn-out survey and leaves much to anticipate in the nuances of knowledge that the artist is driven by.

Susan Jacobs – The ants are in the idiom

Curated by Jacqueline Doughty

Showing at Buxton Contemporary until 6 November; free.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne.