Nature Boy

"MY CAT WAS shedding," artist David Lefkowitz laughs, "and there was just so much fur coming off, I thought there must be something I can do with this." That something is now encased in glass at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; it's a tiny, peach-colored fur nest cradling two hair balls. "Part of the inspiration," Lefkowitz admits, "was that I could make an [exhibit] label that actually said 'cat hair' on it."

Lefkowitz, a Minneapolis resident and occasional teacher at Carleton College, is a humble goofball and habitual giggler. (A slight resemblance to Gabe "Kotter" Kaplan only heightens the effect.) He's also conspicuously smart, with the sort of incandescent personality that can't help but seep into his work. In both conversation and art, he seems happier to play with impossible questions than to nail down answers; "unresolvable" is big in the Lefkowitz lexicon.

The MIA show, called Nature World, is a collection of takes on the tension between humans and our environment (call it the eternal Man/Nature dichotomy). The topic provides Lefkowitz lots of space to obsess over the relationship between an image and the material used to create it--for example, painting scenes of deforestation on two-by-fours, or painting a tree on the dotted surface of a Ping-Pong paddle to spoof on pointilism. "The things I like best about art are the things I like best about good jokes," Lefkowitz says. "You're set up to expect something, and then it's contextualized in a way that makes it not what you expected. The best surrealist painting is all about that."

But surrealism (or Welcome Back Kotter) is just the beginning of Lefkowitz's touchstones; he names a funky combination of inspirations, including Magritte, anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould, and musical scrappers like NRBQ, Beck, and, early on, the Beatles. "They were these cultural scavengers. They would pick stuff up from all over the place and make meaning out of it by juxtaposing things that weren't necessarily a unit. In some ways listening to that gave me permission--and I'm sure I wasn't conscious of this at the time--to be all over the place."

For sure, Nature World is all over the place, but its parts do form some coherent (if narrow) throughline. One large display wall is dominated by "Silviculture," a jumble of painted two-by-fours arranged to present the shape of a tree. Here again, Lefkowitz mischievously toys with natural imagery and unnatural media, in a droll example of artistic humility: In the end, a man can't "make" a tree, and he's only too happy to be the one to prove it. Sure enough, the show has an environmentalist slant, but it's never preachy. "Hopefully, my work would make people reconsider the way they look at the world a little bit--like [with] two-by-fours, how they use a resource, how they think about wood.... But I don't want to beat you over the head."

Lefkowitz points to "Banquet," a long table scattered with styrofoam take-out boxes containing rather quaint oil portraits of half-eaten junk food. "It's about being more conscious of waste, and also about our conflicting ways of thinking about permanence. A painting, especially that kind of academic, old-masterly look, is a certain convention: 'Oh, that's good permanence. It'll never change.' But they're in these styrofoam containers that'll never biodegrade, so that's 'bad' permanence."

A nostalgia for "good" permanence and "good" art permeates the show, though it's repeatedly subverted. "All my work comes out of this conflict between loving stuff like Duchamp and his ready-mades--the balls of just putting a urinal up in the gallery, or a snow shovel, and saying that's 'art.' It [shows] that what makes something art is more about the context in which it's presented. At the same time, I still love paintings like Vermeer or Thomas Eakins and that whole history of representational painting. Everything I do is to find some way to figure out where those meet, or point out those conflicts."

In one such nifty section, Vermeer meets Macintosh through a series of delicate portraits: Slender vines entwine with quietly expressive computer cables, and a random honeybee seeks nectar between metal prongs. The effect is pure deadpan, and we're reminded that this traditional, painterly representation of nature is, after all, as man-made as anything. But, humor aside, one also senses a yearning: an adoration for the beauty of both technology and the (so-called) wild; an almost erotic longing for some kind of reunion between this divorced couple.

At any rate, it's hardly a condemnation of humanity. "Here we are," Lefkowitz says. "We have a consciousness, so [let's] acknowledge that and figure out what to do instead of beating ourselves over the head. Oh, we're terrible, we're bad, human beings are the worst, we're ruining the world. It's a knee-jerk response. It's just not that simple."

David Lefkowitz will give a slide show and discuss his work Sunday, September 7, at 3 p.m. at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

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