Natural Wonders

One of the most unnatural things you'll ever encounter in modern and contemporary art is a representation of nature. It's one of the few constants in visual art during the past century. From the tail end of post-Impressionism through futurism, Dada, surrealism, abstract expressionism, Op, Pop, and the endless waves of post- and neo- "isms," those things that naturally occur in this world have been shirked in favor of the wonders of technology or the darkest depths of the human mind. Admittedly, the natural environment has always been a source of inspiration, but as far as using it as it's seen by the naked eye, well, that's what photography is better suited to do. Even environmental and land art of the 1960s and 1970s, which incorporated open-air spaces on a grand scale, were less concerned with representing nature than they were with transforming it. The past 100 years have fragmented what's been one aspect of visual art since the Renaissance: representing the visible realm in a real, natural manner.

The three-person show Ulterior at the University of Dallas' Haggerty Gallery provides a peek into what a return to naturalism qua realism may look like at a time when plastics, computers, and multimedia everything is as much a part of the environment as green spaces. Curated by gallery director Christine Bisetto, Ulterior is the third annual Haggerty exhibition that pairs two sculptors with a painter. This year, the sculptors are Dallas-based Lily Hanson and San Antonio-based Leigh Anne Lester, the painter is Dallas-based Chris Kysor, and all three wander through the wide valley that separates representation from abstraction today.

It's an idea that's immediately apparent in Lester's three sculptures. She creates organic-based forms that couldn't be more artificial if they appeared as cartoons. "Hostile Rock" is a small stone wrapped in clear plastic that's covered in spikes like a horned toad and mounted on a shelf. It's perplexingly comical, especially given that the materials listed for it include "rock" and "hostile setting." Not too long ago, translucency was the prima facie quality for consumer purity. Spanning everything from dishwashing detergents to soft drinks, clear products were assumed to be, or at least marketed as, the best. The proof was in your ability to see right through it. It makes you wonder what Lester considers hostile--the spikes covering the rock, the rock that could be used as a weapon, or the fact that we're making qualitative judgments about objects based on assumptions that have no logical foundation in the physical world.

The commendably accurate plant forms that make up "Utopia" and "Century" are even more aggressive in their assault of how cultural meanings are established. "Century" is a commanding presence; a clear-plastic-vinyl, fernlike sculpture mounted in a wooden planter in the gallery, with see-through leaves that reach skyward suspended by fine lines tying the tips to a metal meshwork overhead. However, the small, weedlike, clear-plastic-vinyl plant "Utopia" almost escapes your notice. It's mounted near the floor, its clear leaves crawling up a white wall. Nearly invisible, it provides a clue as to why Lester chooses to make natural phenomena with translucent materials. Typical plastic knickknacks, those faux fruits and flowers you find at friendly neighborhood department stores, scream their artificiality with an ear-piercing obviousness. Lester's clear sculptures are so synthetic yet precise they seep into their environment's background, thwarting any specific notion that visually signifies where the natural begins and the artificial ends.

Hanson's six sculptures take up that debate with an agile, though elusive, gravity. Her shape of choice is the blob, the indefinite form that defies any easy explication. It's a term that's recently been used to describe the designs created by a new breed of architects, those who use computers as an integral part of the design process rather than simply as a tool for speedy number-crunching and visualization. It's also been used to refer to the cultural climate in the wake of former President Bill Clinton's last State of the Union address, commonly called the "Monica" State of the Union because it came in the wake of Clinton's impeachment trial. Countless polls showed that most Americans thought that Clinton had perjured himself but that he shouldn't be removed from office. Even so, Clinton came to the podium like a slippery eel and delivered one of the most rousing and well-received addresses of his two terms. It proved that morality and reality are two different beasts. Americans are going to think however they damn well please.

In both cases, what's most interesting about the idea of the blob is its elasticity. You can see what you want to see in it. Hanson explores that multiplicity of possibilities. All of her steel/wire, foam and fabric sculptures resemble something in the natural world but nothing in particular. The wall-mounted "Fancy Lobe Septum" and "Curded Grace" could be biologically inspired--say, a bone of the inner ear, or the juncture of two small body cavities, or something else entirely. Some are more literal-minded than others--"Dainty Doodoo" looks like an engorged section of lower intestine dangling a tiny portion of its contents--while others are eerily elusive. "Stance of Serulity (moral)" is an almost anthropomorphic mass, like a stuffed-animal embryo. The discernible features of a body aren't there yet, but you can easily see how they would develop. It's the shape of something that's becoming. It's still gestating. And it's a wonderfully wry comment on the state of American culture today.

This transitional moment is what Kysor's five paintings capture as well, but from a different perspective. Whereas Hanson's sculptures address flux from globular entities, Kysor's vocabulary results from pitting the micro against the macro. His large, hot-color keyed areas and definite lines make you think of Bridget Riley's smooth compositional confidence flirting with Ellsworth Kelly's hard-edged abstraction. Kysor hasn't quite resolved the issue for himself yet, though the conflict does lend his works a palpable tension that's refreshing.

Kysor's canvases are a minefield of differently colored, irregular-shaped polygons, like a mirror cracked, with each sliver reflecting a different hue, though each painting only deals with a narrow palette and is usually dominated by one shade. "Blue Chris" is expectedly ruled by its crisp blue, though pink, brown, and lavender appear as well. A soft sage color offset by a matte off-white lends "Two of Us" its calm antagonism. His approach and style are so recognizably his own yet mutable that you can imagine his canvases creating a kaleidoscope if stacked: Turn some large prism in his brain, and the shape shards would morph and collide and change colors until the next painting emerged.

There is a sense of a continuum in his works. Zoom way out and you'll see a landscape. Zoom way in and you'll see a substance's molecular structure. Kysor's canvases fall somewhere in between, where it's difficult to tell what you're looking at. And that's probably the entire point.

All three explore what's becoming a common conundrum of how to capture any reality that surrounds you when it often seems more unreal than sincere. It's a question with which a great deal of contemporary art seems to be grappling, and it's best stated as a cliché: Why abandon representation for abstraction when truth is stranger than fiction? The gap that separates the real from the imaginary has always been wide, simply because it's purely intellectual. H.G. Wells could imagine going back in time or making a man invisible because it's pure fantasy. Trouble is, we live in a world that constantly tries to erode the line between fantasy and reality. Science and technology have made more and more things only thought probable first possible then actual, and these promissory advancements create the illusion that the gap between fact and fiction is becoming narrower. The problem is not that what's real and what's not are constantly being confused, but that we're approaching a point where the issue is entirely moot.

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Bret Mccabe