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On Exhibit: art that takes a green thumb

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Last Friday morning English artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey fussed over their sculpture Specific Natures in the window of the former Mort Cooper store on State Street. The piece consists of a pair of densely molded, lifelike nudes--one male, one female--created from living grass. As Harvey misted the work with water and Ackroyd wiped smudges from the windows, they seemed a strange hybrid of shopkeepers and undertakers--the reclining sculptures looked like verdant corpses lying in state and literally going to seed. Several passersby compared the two figures to Chia Pets, but Nathan Mason, curator of special projects for the city's public art program, isn't fond of the analogy. As he stated at last Thursday's opening, "I have forbidden any official mention of that."

Harvey and Ackroyd began working in grass independently: Harvey's first piece was a Bible opened to the parable of the sower and impregnated with seed; he's also created books with grass growing through their pages to be used in films by Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. Ackroyd, formerly a performance artist, used to make props covered with the stuff. The two have been partners since shortly after they met in 1989. Ackroyd describes their collaborative work, which is often elegiacally short-lived and reliant on dying grass, as a "perverse form of horticulture." Specific Natures and Supernatural (After Piero di Cosimo), a 32-by-131/2-foot reproduction--in grass--of a Renaissance painting, are the products of the couple's recent four-week residency here.

Supernatural, currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center, reproduces Piero's A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph, a mournful scene inspired by Ovid's account of Cephalus accidentally spearing his beloved wife, Procris, with a javelin. The original hangs in London's National Gallery; the organic version was made by projecting a negative image of the painting onto a clay wall embedded with ryegrass seeds, a technique they've perfected over years. During an eight-day exposure the artists raised the projector a quarter-inch daily so the light would stay aligned with the growing blades of grass and thus keep the emerging picture in focus. The chlorophyll in the vertical lawn responded much like the photosensitive silver particles embedded in traditional photographic paper, which turn shades of black, gray, and white when exposed to light. The result is a spectrum of muted greens, with yellow areas representing the blacks of the painting, where little or no light passed through the negative. The colors--and the image--will fade slowly over the coming weeks as the blades die.

Ackroyd and Harvey take the dust-to-dust theme a step further with Specific Natures. To create the sculptures the artists cast two Chicago models in plaster, filled each dried cast with 40 pounds of grass seed, then added water and waited for the mass of growing roots to bind together. They then broke the casts away and placed the figures in the window. As the grass grows it will slowly obliterate the original anatomical detail, ultimately leaving just two long mounds of unruly turf.

The artists funded their work in part with a small grant from the New York-based Gunk Foundation, which aims to resist "the spreading grip of corporate funding for all forms of intellectual production." States the foundation's Web site, "It is our belief that work that is site-specific and that cuts into the space of everyday life will have the most profound effect on politicizing the public realm." Toward that end, Harvey says Ackroyd and he turned down funding from the petrochemical corporation BP, whose logo employs a green-and-yellow palette close to their own. "Perhaps it's foolish financially," he says, "but it's just not where our hearts are."

Specific Natures is on view at 151 N. State, and Supernatural is installed in the Chicago Cultural Center's Sidney Yates Gallery, 78 E. Washington, through September 28. Call 312-744-6630 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets, Rep3.com.

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