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Nature Girls

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For more than a decade Ann Wiens has been making hotly colored animal paintings that radiate an almost dangerous sensuality. In her six new panel paintings at Byron Roche, various nonmammalian creatures are depicted in front of brightly patterned backgrounds that set off their lush colors. Eight-Spotted Forester (Alypia Octomaculata) juxtaposes a red-and-white caterpillar with a red background punctuated by green and blue circles that intensify the reds and curves of the caterpillar. In Spotted Salamander the amphibian's tail curls around one of the black disks in the background, emphasizing the artificial arrangement.

The intense colors in a 1988 exhibit of 15th-century Sienese paintings inspired Wiens to begin painting in layers. These works lacked Renaissance perspective--"they're spatially all wrong," she says, "but painted with so much confidence that it makes you think they're right." Aware that she'd been painting variations on the same subjects for years and that her butterflies and moths failed because they were "too pretty--they never had the creepiness factor," Wiens asked the Field Museum to let her photograph their insect collection. She placed each specimen in front of a patterned paper, which later inspired her painted backgrounds, and the resulting 30 photographs on view here are almost as lush as her paintings. In the photograph Virgin Tiger Moth (Grammia Virgo), black-and-white sunburst patterns make it seem that a black, white, and pink moth is ascending. Though all the insects reveal the pins stuck in them, Wiens's dizzying patterns and colors undercut any sense of rationalism.

Ann Wiens

Where: Byron Roche, 750 N. Franklin

When: Through April 30

Info: 312-654-0144

Field Museum specimens also inspired Peggy Macnamara's 18 watercolors at Aron Packer. Macnamara--who's an associate at the museum--made drawings of insects for an earlier exhibit at Packer, then switched to nests when she discovered cabinet after cabinet of them, all collected by the author of a 1963 book on ants, Robert Edmond Gregg. She begins by outlining her forms in pencil, then applies as many as 60 layers of watercolor, sometimes so thickly that the original sketch is obscured. But the many pencil lines that remain and the visible layers of paint are crucial: like Cezanne's objects, Macnamara's seem to be forming as we look at them, through lines and colors that are apparently just falling into place. In Pied-Billed Grebe Nest pencil lines outside the bird's painted head unfix its presence in space. In Ant Garden, green leaves cluster around a brown ant nest, the leaves in layers of color that don't end cleanly. This dynamic style is true both to the way our eyes constantly move to perceive objects and to the cumulative natural processes of growth and nest building. In a wall label for the piece, Macnamara describes the way an ant nest acts as a breeding ground for forms of plant life in an ongoing, evolving symbiotic process.

Peggy Macnamara

Where: Aron Packer, 118 N. Peoria

When: Through April 23

Info: 312-226-8984

Humor grabs center stage in Katrin Asbury's show at Wendy Cooper, which consists of three installations, three sculptures, and seven drawings. Though Asbury's three-dimensional pieces are endearingly nutty, they also comment on our relationship to the natural world. In The Dream Life of Lila Acheson Wallace, a graceful wooden antelope stands on its hind legs, apparently eating the real flowers in a vase placed in a neoclassical architectural niche Asbury copied from a design in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Asbury's mind, Wallace--who funded the purchase of fresh flowers at the Met--is dreaming that she herself is the bouquet being eaten by the antelope. That may not be obvious, but the point that nature consists of living presences constantly consuming one another certainly comes through. The sculpture Suharto (Playing Sick) shows two orangutans grabbing at what appears to be a human figure under a bedcover. It was inspired by a couple of facts about Suharto, Indonesia's corrupt former ruler: he tried to elude prosecution by claiming illness, and "he was very, very good for the orangutan population," Asbury says. "After they got rid of him, the forests were decimated." One animal appears to be touching Suharto's foot through the covers in what Asbury calls "a moment of interspecies tenderness."

Katrin Asbury

Where: Wendy Cooper, 119 N. Peoria #2D

When: Through April 23

Info: 312-455-1195

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