Visual Arts > Visual Arts
Leigh Anne Lester's lovely illustrations of unnatural monstrosities are the art equivalent of a Venus Flytrap. Delicate flowers grafted to wicked-looking cacti capture you in a sticky conundrum: Is human meddling with DNA our greatest scientific achievement or a Vonnegut-penned epitaph? Lester doesn't pretend to know, either, but she worries. More importantly for the insidious appeal of her work, progress gone wrong possesses its own terrible beauty.
The artist's one-woman show at the Institute of Texan Cultures is the second exhibiton in UTSA's new Texas Contemporary Artists Series, curated by Arturo Almeida. It marks the Louisiana native's 20th year in Texas, and the evolution of her ideas about evolution and human intervention. Using graphite and colored pencils on Mylar, she creates drawings as detailed and preternaturally real as William Bartram's famous 19th-century botanical illustrations — except in Lester's upside-down world, a fern might sprout from a fungus, which also gives root to Bells of Ireland and an oak sapling. She layers multiple drawings of her creations to play with the expression of dominant traits, and recently started working with time-lapse videos to dramatize the effect.
At the root of these Franken-flora — and Lester's earlier work dealing with inherited human illnesses — is an investigation of science's potential and limitations, paired with a deep regard for adaptation and assimilation. While she's motivated in part by news that proponents of genetically modified crops actually talk as if GMO plants can be contained in the open environment, e.g., or that Monsanto is trademarking ever-dwindling varieties of certain seeds, she also marvels at the planet's ability to cope and morph in unexpected ways. As series curator Almeda sums it up: "You have a responsibility in creating."
But Lester's work is more captivating than that of many environmental-doom-inspired artists, because the pure gorgeousness of the pieces acknowledges our original sin, our desire to bite the apple. Yes, she's experimenting in a less dangerous lab, but she's experimenting nonetheless; the initial motive may be pure, but at some point curiosity takes over. What if these alpine flowers were mated with a Southwestern succulent?
"The new outcome of this potentiality can capsize a natural balance or create a new species for that balance," she writes in her Artist Statement. "This possibility is as exciting as it is frightening." And as unforgiving; just try to get that cat back in the bag. This show also includes an expanded version of her Luminaria installation, in which handcut Mylar creates an impenetrable and black-magical thicket.
Eventually, notes Lester, the previously unknown and the formerly taboo become commonplace and unquestioned, a transition that she is exploring through embroidery — a medium she used to brilliantly uneasy effect in her disease series. She wants us to question the accuracy of Granny's samplers, she says in her statement, but she's also undermining our complacency in the new normal.
Embroidery and video aren't part of the UTSA show, but Lester's sewn vinyl sculptures are: eerily translucent amalgamations, as she sometimes calls them, that sprout from the ground beneath us, or in the case of a site-specific installation at the McNay, float on the surface of a pond, while koi swim unsuspectingly around them. Their surface perfection conceals the danger, like another fairy-tale apple. Lester doesn't mean to put us to sleep, though; she wants to wake us up.