In two shows in Raleigh, similar media and themes play out with radically differing results in the hands of two artists. Both work with the format of the book, and both explore the delicate yet insistent life of plants as a metaphor for human life--but here they take divergent paths.
Lesley Patterson-Marx, an MFA graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, became fascinated with an inherited cache of turn-of-the-20th-century photographs from her grandmother and used them as the basis and inspiration for the body of work on view at Rebus Works, Plant Family.
When describing families, we speak of "family trees," of "putting down roots," of "apples not falling far from the tree." Patterson-Marx has superimposed these imageries on top of antique photographs to striking effect, reminding us of our deep connections to the natural world and its cycles.
The miniature "Winter Book" begins with monochromatic painted branches stretching across its cover and opens beguilingly into an architecture of cut-out windows. "Pirate Box" is part Joseph Cornell, part treasures in the attic, its compartments yielding up lovely seashells, fragments of maps, and the plaintive written message "I am longing for the sea." The gallery provides cotton gloves so you can explore both works hands-on.
"Root Mother" places a leaf motif over the bodice of a woman and draws roots over her skirt, extending over the photograph's border, while "Tree Man" is defined by branches and roots scratched from the image's surface and augmented by root-like threads. Patterson uses silvery pencil to obscure the face of the "Beet Queen," whose face becomes the vegetable while the sprouts form a kind of crown atop her head. The resultant image is surreal--reminiscent of that Mannerist oddity Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who painted fantastical portraits out of assembled formations of vegetables. Roots also suggest human bodily structures such as veins, a device also found in the work of Frida Kahlo.
"The Four Seasons," a series of four shadowboxes, depicts four babies whose elaborate christening gowns become the grounds for Patterson-Marx's equally intricate floral patterning, suggesting the white-on-white embroidery found on such garments. Hanging from each of the shadowboxes are threads to which various seeds have been attached.
The faded sepia tonalities of the pieces suggests the fragility of dried leaves and the fleeting nature of our existence. Yet the precise touch with which they have been constructed, embroidered, painted and otherwise elaborated upon relays the precious care that brings life into being and nurtures it, and the grand design that links us inexorably to the natural world.
Braun, too, makes books and collages based on what one immediately feels is her deep relationship with nature. Where Patterson-Marx chooses a limited palette and restricted, miniaturized imagery, Braun prefers jewel-tones, dramatic textures and a nearly elephant-size folio for her "Open Book." These oversized pages are richly, thickly painted and sewn upon, reminiscent of medieval vellum illuminations, and operate from an intuitive body-based approach. (Braun is a practicing reflexologist, a branch of alternative medicine.) The images on these pages seem to make visible the openings of the chakras.
The exhibition is designed to shed insight into her processes. Several examples of Braun's leathery papers--characteristically crumpled, then flattened--are presented for our inspection, as are squares of found linoleum which become the basis for rich mixed media collages heightened with gold leaf, as in the bursting pomegranate titled "To Bear a Child."
A two-part image, "As Above, So Below," illustrates a mystical truth with the mirrored image of tree branches and tree roots with threads hanging from them, a theme worked with more control, and to entirely different effect, in Patterson-Marx's "Tree Man."
Not all of Braun's works here succeed. Notably, "Tower of Frames" is just that, a tower of unused frames that Braun has begun to decorate--an interesting premise, just served a bit undercooked.
The show opens with two lovely, tiny pastel drawings that Braun says she makes as memory drawings "capturing the spirit of the place and the moment."
I suspect if she stays true to this intuitive visual journaling practice, what she has to impart will come through with more clarity in the good time it takes for any practitioner to reach the full bloom of artistic maturity.
Lesley Patterson-Marx's Plant Family is on display through Aug. 26 at Rebus Works, 301-2 Kinsey St. off Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, call 754-8452 or visit www.rebusworks.net.
Aleta Braun's Material Changes is on display through July 28 at the NCSU Gallery of Art and Design, located in the Talley Student Center at 2610 Cates Ave. in Raleigh. Summer hours are Monday through Thursday from 2 to 8 p.m. and Friday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 515-3503 or visit www.ncsu.edu/gad.