Nature Boy

Shallow roots: Artist David Lefkowitz chops at our superficial idea of the natural
Courtesy Thomas Barry

Art openings are often beggar's banquets: The opening of "Cultivars" at Thomas Barry's new gallery has a crowd milling in front of the banquet table like lions at a watering hole. But on this particular evening there is an element of absurdity to the feeding frenzy. Not only is the banquet table empty of any food, it's not even a real table. It's an image in a painting called "Reception Area," by artist David Lefkowitz. And what's more, the scene hanging on the wall is really less of a table than it is a topiary shaped to look like a green banquet table--its stems bent into table legs, its foliage shaped to look like a linen-draped tabletop.

It is quite a feat of choreography, then, that the artist is able to gather all the mingling sippers of wine into the cramped space in front of this chimerical painting rather than in the more commodious room to the left of this hall. After a time, Lefkowitz finds me lingering at the fringes of the pack, jotting notes, and we briefly chat before he returns to the crowd. A congenial 39-year-old whose face often bunches up when he smiles, Lefkowitz is subdued this evening, struck by the shock of Senator Wellstone's death in the morning. That feeling is made more acute by Lefkowitz's longtime connection to Carleton College as a student and now an art teacher there.

When we speak on the phone later, Lefkowitz admits that manipulation is at the heart of his artistic endeavor. "In some ways," he says, "I feel like the motivation to make art is a way to assert a kind of control over a world that you otherwise can't control." In this case, the influence Lefkowitz refers to has to do with the titular cultivars, or plant varieties contrived through horticultural means, and by extension to the ways we Americans manipulate our (mostly suburban) landscape. But then the American landscape has been dominated by such tampering since its current geography began to take shape.

Consider, for instance, the 1870 book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, by landscape architect Frank Jessup Scott. In it, Scott describes the proper ways to build a lawn and establish shrubs on plots of land in the newly born spaces on the outskirts of cities. Scott and others of the time promoted the suburbs as an antidote to metropolitan alienation, and a way to take in the healthful qualities of nature. Of course, if you followed the author's botanical recommendations--choking out native species for care-intensive invaders--you'd soon have a wholly unnatural environment. The path to blank lawns, choking highways, and rivers of pesticide runoff are paved with confused intentions.

That the table in "Reception Area" is a topiary--much as you'd find in thousands of suburban yards--is part of the artist's ruse. He asks us to feast at an empty and implausible table. Yet not only is this roughly 6-by-24-inch topiary a fake, but the 42-by-50-inch raw wood panel it's painted on is itself a counterfeit of sorts. It's quarter-inch birch plywood, a composite substance made of pulp and glue sandwiched between thin wood wafers. The artist's interest in pointing out the way humans manipulate seemingly natural items in everyday life is evident, then, in both the images of his paintings and in the ground he chooses to paint on.

"I'm examining the dark side of being able to control nature for whatever purposes," Lefkowitz says. "This is partly why the show is called 'Cultivars,' which is a term for different breeds--as in varieties of apples. In my mind, I'm asking the question, How is genetic engineering different from pruning a tree? It's certainly different on some levels, but these come out of the same impetus, the human desire for mastery."

The accretion of his images points to the ultimate absurdity and waywardness of our attempts to shape the natural world, and the naturalness of our desire to do so. In fact, the rest of Lefkowitz's paintings, with only one exception, are all of a piece with "Reception Area." That is, they are topiaries shaped like various bizarre and fake objects that are still somehow not beyond imagining. They all could well exist in some suburban yard in Wayzata. And all are painted on plywood panels with the same obsessive and tiny, almost pointillistic brushstrokes. In "Fell," the shrubs coalesce into a large downed pine tree. In "Listener," the shrubs form a kind of satellite dish. And so on.

The only exception to this approach and composition is "Camouflage," a vast (44-by-80-inch) aerial scene of foliage that is broken only by several empty patches of unfinished wood. That is, Lefkowitz has crudely gouged into the actual surface of the image, erasing the foliage here and there. This scratching out no doubt says something about Lefkowitz's feelings about the suburban experience--and its attendant destruction and re-creation of nature.

All the same, Lefkowitz is irresolute on how to solve the dilemmas of modern living. "I don't start out with an environmental agenda," he says. "I don't say 'This is how I want you to read things.' I want them to be ambivalent. I'm behind issues like sustainable energy, but I also drive to Northfield a couple times a week for my job. I'm complicit in the degradation."

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