Suzanne Caporael: The Nature of Things, on view now at Chazen Museum of Art

American artist Suzanne Caporael (b. 1949) is inspired by the natural world. Suzanne Caporael: The Nature of Things features nearly 70 artworks, spanning three decades, drawn from the Chazen’s Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s permanent collection. The exhibition, on view through September 12, will include paintings as well as prints created at UW­–Madison’s Tandem Press.

“Suzanne Caporael’s long relationship with UW–Madison makes creating and touring this exhibition particularly special for the Chazen,” Amy Gilman, director of the museum, said. “In addition, the scientific underpinnings of her work make them incredibly relevant as we all confront issues of global climate change and our relationship with nature. We are looking forward to sharing her artworks on campus and around the country.”

Suzanne Caporael paintings – abstract, or not?

Though Caporael’s paintings and related prints may at first seem abstract, they are in fact rooted in close observation and attention to the complex scientific structures that lie beneath the natural.

“Suzanne Caporael seems fascinated by systems and how information is structured in an effort to understand, and perhaps contain, the natural world,” Katherine Alcauskas, chief curator at the Chazen and organizer of the exhibition, said. “These systems often take complex information and make it visible – simply ­– to the human eye. In her artistic process, however, Caporael renders these systems as abstractions, bringing back their complexity and ambiguity.”

The artist often works in series, creating groups of paintings clustered around one topic (like the Periodic Table of Elements) and using her printmaking practice to deepen her exploration of subjects that she is currently painting. She typically makes prints in the middle of what she calls a “learning project” or painting campaign, when she is not yet finished resolving an image.

Caporael, Susan (American, b. 1949), Shore Lead, 2000. Etching and collagraph with hand-applied graphite, 36 1/2 x 60 in. Transfer from Tandem Press, 2001.69

All the prints included in this exhibition were published by the UW–Madison’s Tandem Press, where Caporael has worked closely with master printers to translate her compositions from one medium to another. The Chazen Museum of Art serves as the official repository of the Tandem Press archive, from which these prints are drawn.

The Nature of Things will present Caporael’s works thematically rather than chronologically. With five main sections, the exhibition will give viewers insights into her visual explorations of color and chemical structure, flora and fauna, water and ice, the night sky, and perception and memory.

Color and Chemical Structure

Caporael’s interest in minerals, and the elements they are composed of, resulted in a series of works created in the mid-to-late 1990s that addressed the periodic table of elements and the elemental or chemical composition of pigments used in painting. Within this section, the artist’s careful attention to color and pigment is on vibrant display in works like “Cobalt Violet: O, Co, P.”

Flora and Fauna

Although Caporael began her career in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, she left the city in 1988 and moved to rural California. The rural landscape began to influence her compositions, helping her realize that she did not want to paint pictures of the landscape, but rather what she thought about it. She began to create paintings evoking trees and plants, like her representation of horsetails (known scientifically as Equisetum arvense), in “156 (Horsetails).”

Water and Ice

Caporael found particular fascination with estuaries, unique ecosystems where fresh water from inland rivers meets and mingles with salt water of ocean bodies. This resulted in a series of paintings and prints initiated in 2001 titled “Littoral Drift”. The title refers to the movement of grains of sand along the shore with the ocean current. This section will also include works exploring other bodies of water including salt marshes, beaches and water in its frozen form.

Night Sky

Exploring the cyclical nature of the environment, dictated by planetary movements through space, Caporael also turned her eyes upward. “Leonids,” titled after a meteor shower that occurs annually, may appear rectangular at first, but is in fact wider at its base. This imitates the effect that the artist experienced when living in rural California – of the stars reaching down from the sky and draping over the hills.

Perception and Memory

Around 2005, Caporael became interested in the mechanics of the eye and the brain, and how the two organs communicate. Caporael’s wide-ranging exploration of the topic has addressed memory, imagination, time, cognition and perception.

About Suzanne Caporael

Suzanne Caporael (b. 1949), who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020, was born in New York. Her father, a civil engineer, moved the family around the United States until they settled in California in the mid-1960s. Caporael earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

Her work is in numerous public and private collections including The Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; among others.

About the Chazen Museum of Art

The Chazen Museum of Art makes its home between two lakes on the beautiful campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Within walking distance of the state capitol, it sits squarely in the heart of a vibrant college town. Featuring one of the best views on campus, an art-filled bridge connects the historic Elvehjem building, built in 1970, with the Chazen building, built in 2011. This connection represents both a physical and intellectual joining of human art history and the most dynamic artistic explorers of today. 

With a permanent collection of more than 23,000 objects, from vessels of ancient Greece to prints by Kara Walker, the Chazen is the second largest museum in Wisconsin. Two expansive buildings encompass 163,000+ square feet, making it the largest collecting museum in the Big Ten. More than 100,000 visitors come through the Chazen’s doors each year to enjoy the permanent collection and special exhibitions. The Chazen is currently open Tuesday-Friday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., with online reservations required. Admission is free for all and includes programs for students, families and community members, all provided with the museum’s unique brand of Wisconsin hospitality. 

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