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Stranded in the Shallows

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Joan Lee: Ephemera

at Contemporary Art Workshop, through June 16

Max Mohr: Pre-Nova

at Vedanta, through June 16

By Fred Camper

Last October Joan Lee was surprised by the first snowstorm of the season while standing on a hill in Vermont, an experience she found almost frightening. "Grasses and small shrubs around me, in the field and near a small pond, collapsed in front of my shivering eyes," she writes in her artist's statement. "In a matter of several minutes, all the dandelions stooped and shriveled." A few days later the weather warmed up, and Lee--who'd already made one book that included pressed plants--started gathering natural objects to use in her art.

The result is "Ephemera," several dozen pieces--among them a larger book and sheets of paper as big as 40 by 60 inches--at the Contemporary Art Workshop. Her materials include leaves, berries, flowers, butterflies, seeds, and roots, which she collages with drawings on paper. Lee says the storm inspired this work, but she doesn't know why. What's clear is that these large drawings and monoprints--made by pressing a blank sheet against the original drawing--poetically evoke nature living and dead, both presence and absence.

Especially fascinating are the works that pair the drawing on the left with the monoprint on the right. Though these are mirror images, they can look quite different--it's even hard to tell at times which is the original, because plant fragments have come off on some prints. The drawn half of A Deprived Dusk has an irregular mass of black ink in its lower portion punctuated by a line of milkweed seedpods; above them are an isolated large pansy and a "bouquet" of pansies--a motif that recurs often, as if Lee were offering us things she's collected. But the grouping is closer to random flowers in a field than perfectly arranged flowers in a vase. And as in most of the paired drawings, Lee covers this surface with a thin sheet of translucent paper, which not only holds the specimens in place but distances the viewer from them.

Comparing the drawing and the print is key. The bouquet in the original is provisional and imperfect, acknowledging both natural disorder and the way the very act of preservation (here the tissue-thin paper) further removes the object from the realm of the living. The mere traces of the bouquet in the monoprint evoke distance and loss even more strongly: the fragmentary duplication of this image suggests the impossibility of any image depicting a living object. Similarly, the seedpods in A Deprived Dusk have an almost ghostly presence in the drawing as textured interruptions to a field of ink, an impression made even more vivid by the way the pods appear in the monoprint: because they don't absorb ink well, we see blank areas in a sea of black--haunting suggestions of the pods' absence.

Like vanitas paintings, Lee's works contemplate both nature and nature's impermanence. The title of another diptych, On the Event Horizon, refers to the limitation of the "event horizon," the "surface" around a black hole beyond which no light can escape--and the traces of dandelions and pink berries here are almost obscured on both sides of the diptych by a gray wash. There is a cluster at bottom center, but it registers more as part of an integrated field, a mix of berries, flowers, and ground--an object and its indistinct traces, light and light lost.

A native of Seoul who moved to the United States in her teens and is now a Chicagoan, Lee recalls as an inspiration many family trips to rural areas. Her mother had one rule, "never pick a flower"--and while Lee was picking the thousands of flowers she needed for this project, people called her a "flower murderer." But unlike Audubon, who painted illusionistic pictures of the birds he killed, Lee gives us the actual objects, vividly invoking the natural world from which they were taken.

Where Are Gravitons? is a seven-foot-wide double diptych; the right sides of each have many berries that have come off in the printing, while the left panels sport both a "bouquet" of berries and a separate line of them. A grayish pink wash forms a kind of energy field around the berries, which seem at once living beings with an aura and decaying vegetable matter oozing pigment into the surrounding ink, which comes to stand for soil. Nature is seen here as an interdependent whole, its elements surrendering to the overall field, rather than as isolated objects arranged by humans for their pleasure.

Flowers also figure prominently among the nine sculptures and one installation by German artist Max Mohr at Vedanta, and his pastel color schemes are a bit like Lee's. But instead of natural objects he offers assemblages of manufactured materials: parts of prostheses, lingerie, plastic he casts himself, ultrathin gauzelike sheets of fabric. True to their manufactured nature, his objects are generally hard edged; they don't "bleed" into their surroundings--though they might resonate in the viewer's mind.

In Belliminator, an oblong frame of fabric-covered rods contains two plantlike objects on the left, a green flower and a flesh-colored branchlike object sprouting two glass tentacles, which point to an "arm" with a nine-fingered hand at the right. This "confrontation" of three beings suggests a goofy surrealist drama. Straddling the line between serious and silly, Mohr's works are saved from pretentiousness by their self-parody and gentle hues, whose resonance belies the flat sterility of mass-culture artifacts.

Es ist kalt draussen... is a tall freestanding box covered in nearly transparent fabric; inside is a waist-high object resembling a video-game controller complete with joystick. A break in the fabric sports a panel of nonfunctional dials. The title, which means "it's cold outside," combined with the fabric cage suggests the way humans wall themselves off from the "outside" world to lead artificial lives; the enshrined joystick suggests our culture's new sacred icon.

The most elaborate of Mohr's flower sculptures, Friends for Life, has as a stem a snaking blue tube connected to a pink, heart-shaped base in the wall. A clear glass vial serves as the pistil, and thin, cream-colored tubes are the stamens--all drooping, they seem a little joke on male potency. Despite its many curves, this flower seems utterly removed from nature.

Mohr's installation, Small Hope Bay, consists of a glass-topped freezer with plastic objects inside and a sound track of computer-generated crackles and pops. Among the objects are a green spigot, various tubes, and several complicated objects that rise like plants from the floor of the freezer. Lumpy accretions of frost have formed on some of them, giving the impression of a coral reef. But the whole is sealed off, the music underlines the artificiality of this "natural" scene, and the glass represents the way most of us see nature today: through an aquarium window or a TV screen.

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