Art Beat // Nature documentaries

Two artists, two views of the natural world

WHITTIER — Just as a terrarium might recreate a whole ecosystem in miniature, the paintings of Margaret Wall-Romana describe a full circuit of the lifecycle, from birth to death and back again.

Lush tangles of vegetation sprout against fantasy landscapes or float in abstract space, emerging from the rich decay implied by paint the color of a wilted lettuce leaf. At the same time, Wall-Romana’s brush strokes trace a parallel path, cycling through both abstraction and vivid naturalism in her gorgeous, absorbing still lifes now showing in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Wall-Romana’s paintings might remind viewers of another artist who has shown in the MAEP gallery, Michael Karaken, another technically accomplished painter whose large canvases mingle representation and abstraction. But Karaken prowls the junkyard, paintings massive piles of trash and recycling, while Wall-Romana describes an imaginary space filled with verdant life — milkweed, white daffodils and sunflowers —alongside symbols of death — a skull, a lifeless sparrow and bleached driftwood.

Next door, in the other half of the MAEP galleries, the photographer Peter Happel Christian takes a more scientific approach to his observations of nature. Through a conceptual piece consisting of photographs displayed alongside several objects and a cluster of potted plants, Happel Christian both surveys his surroundings and contemplates the surveyor’s work: dividing the wild world into neat little plots of land.

Happel Christian calls into question the accuracy of his favorite tool, the camera. Photographs of a hedgerow, a stack of lumber, an overgrown backyard and other scenes from a bland, urban environment are all shot through with a black hole, a void of information at their very center.

Happel Christian also makes reference to Thomas Hutchins, the geographer who in the late 1700s first surveyed much of the Northwest Territory, including portions of Minnesota. Hutchins set off on his expedition from a site near East Liverpool, Ohio.

When Happel Christian arrived at that location, camera in hand, he found only an industrial materials storage site and not even a historic marker. In plotting virgin territory, Hutchins paved the way for its development.

What the surveyor plots can be saved, too, Happel Christian suggests. He displays eyeglasses supposedly containing lenses matching the prescription of a pair worn by President Woodrow Wilson — a leader with the foresight to sign the Organic Act, which created the National Park Service.

Go see it
“Painting Before and After Words” and “Ground Truth” both run through April 3 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave S. 870-3000.


A taste of Tamarind

THE WEDGE — Traveling from one bastion of American printmaking to another, a group of engaging lithographs from the Tamarind Institute of Albuquerque, New Mexico, arrived at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in February.

Tamarind Director Marjorie Devon chose these prints by more than a dozen artists for their “personal perspectives,” a category broad enough to include both self-portraits and allegories for the human experience.

In that context, Mark Licari’s squiggly lines read as neuroses on paper. Stray marks tangle together like dust bunnies in his image of a fraying, flaming vacuum cleaner and another of a moth-eaten suit.

The pop artist Jim Dine offers both a charcoal-like self-portrait, his bald head haloed in black, and a series of his Pinocchio prints. A regular subject of Dine’s, here Carlo Collodi’s fairytale puppet seems to stand at attention and march just like a real boy pretending to be an army officer.

The chimerical creatures in Tiawanese-American artist Fay Ku’s floating world — part bird, part fish, part woman — are executed with the clean, economical line of a Japanese Ukiyo-e print. There are visual references to Latin-American folk art in Cuban-born Jose Bedia’s off-kilter desert landscape with a spindly human figure as prickly as a cactus.

Tamarind’s story, as recounted in a 1997 issue of the Czech graphic arts quarterly Grapheion, is in large part the story of modern American lithography. Founded by artist June Wayne in Los Angeles in 1960 as the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, it helped to resuscitate the craft while at the same time setting standards for the artistic, technical and business practices of lithography print shops.

The workshop relocated to Albuquerque in 1970 with the help of a Ford Foundation grant, and was renamed Tamarind Institute, now a division of the University of New Mexico College of Fine Arts. It continues to train master printers and collaborate with artists, as well as research and publish on lithography techniques.

Go see it
“Sincerely Yours: Personal Perspectives from Tamarind,” runs through April 9 at Highpoint Center for Printmaking, 912 W. Lake St. 871-1326.