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Under the Evolutionary Ladder

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Much has been written, hyped and lamented about genetic modification of late, and of course it is scientists who usually get the credit or the blame for any good or evil such endeavors engender. Yet, one might conceivably wonder whether it might not have been painters who really got the ball rolling in the first place, for instance, in those weird human, animal and vegetable admixtures that appear in the canvases of Hieronymous Bosch and Matthias Grunewald, genetic combos that in many ways presaged the mixing of botanical and zoological genes that have found their way into our "new and improved" grocery items today. After all, what the earlier artists could only imagine, modern scientists actually have done, albeit quietly, just below the surface of the gene pool.

But artists keep on dreaming, as we see in Donna Lief's new show, The Immaculate Collection, at Marguerite Oestreicher. Here Lief's tiny and meticulous brush has been exploring Madonna in a series of paintings that celebrate the pop idol's personal history as a collection of hybrid specimens where human heads appear on the torsos of an interesting array of insects. Indeed, in Lief's world show business is a kind of insectarium in which Madonna is a queen bee -- or maybe a butterfly queen. In Madonna of the Monarchs, the Material Girl becomes an ethereal girl as the wings of monarchs envelop her shoulders and breasts, turning a classic three-quarters perspective portrait into a butterfly souvenir tray of sorts. Actually this, like most of the others, recalls the cameo, or miniature, tradition of old, and if these are a little bigger, it is perhaps because they are so detail packed.

In Madonna/Like A Virgin, the pop diva's head appears on the body of a shapely tiger moth, and like so many of the others, it's framed in a gold gilt oval. He's A Man (Carlos Leon), depicts her former lover/personal trainer and father of her first child, Lourdes, as another monarch butterfly, while an adjacent painting, Living Jewel (Lourdes) delineates the girl child herself with little blue wings. And so it goes until we get to Thief of Hearts (Guy Ritchie), the filmmaker who is her current husband, seen here as a predatory beetle replete with exoskeletal body armor and huge fly-like eyes. Although raised in comfort, Ritchie, like former hubby Sean Penn, has a reputation for being something of a brawler, which may have inspired his warrior beetle demeanor.

Beyond the seemingly laser-etched, microbiological application of paint, the most memorable thing about this show is its laborious exploration of a simple theme: celebrities as icons of a glamorous wilderness where the laws of the jungle apply just as surely as they do in any other wildlife habitat. Whether this humanizes or reinforces the cliches about fame, fortune and glory is debatable, but it does make for a colorful exploration of pop-media culture at the outset of the 21st century.

More biological metaphors appear in About Shrimp Boats, Robert Warrens' tribute to one of Louisiana's most colorful traditions. In his artist statement, Warrens laments the shrimp industry's slow death from global competition, onerous regulations, climate change and the like, but many of his paintings still possess the surreal visionary whimsy for which he is known. In The Shooting Gallery, quizzical monkeys appear with hieroglyphic-like rows of endangered species, all bisected by ominous filigrees of refinery tubing that results in a dreamlike and cautionary reverie. More humorous is Queen of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, featuring a vacuous redhead like a low-budget Helen of Troy looming above expanses of tepid water, smoke-belching refineries and desultory shrimp boats in what must be regarded as a Felliniesque take on south Louisiana culture.

All of which is somewhat at odds with his more sober and earthbound mural, Louisiana, A Bit of History, commissioned for Baton Rouge Community College. This takes up half the gallery, and while it's an interesting history lesson, its pedantic tone is at odds with Warrens' traditional visionary giddiness, making for a somewhat schizoid viewing experience. Even so, there is probably enough of his quasi-psychedelic brio at work overall to make this an intriguing, if muted, foray into Warrens' World, that alluvial delta where nature and culture coalesce.

Floats like a butterfly: Donna Lief's Madonna of the Monarchs recasts the Material Girl as an ethereal girl.
  • Floats like a butterfly: Donna Lief's Madonna of the Monarchs recasts the Material Girl as an ethereal girl.

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