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Arts Watch for thorns



Leigh Anne Lester’s Artificial Arrangement is a seductive warning

Leigh Anne Lester is suddenly everywhere. With shows running simultaneously at Women & Their Work in Austin, the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, and San Antonio’s Sala Diaz, I can no longer claim that she is underappreciated. Lester and artist Jayne Lawrence opened their Blue Star art studio to exhibitions in 1993, making Cactus Bra the oldest independent art space in town. So, from behind the curtain, Lester’s personality has been shaping the San Antonio art scene through a dependably challenging line-up of contemporary art shows for more than a decade. Lester’s waifish form, pixie haircut, and Chihuahua sidekick cut like a knife in intellectual circles and sprinkle the eponymous dust in social ones. She seems to have entranced Sala Diaz’ gallery walls this month, as well.

One of five intricate, layered drawings by Leigh Anne Lester that are featured in Artificial Environment, the artist’s critique of genetic modification.

In Artificial Arrangement, the artist grooms her ongoing environmental theme. While her plant drawings are often called “exquisite,” they are precise in the manner of scientific illustrations rather than daintily feminine. Each framed work, and there are only five small ones in the gallery’s first room, is a series of overlapping graphite drawings on translucent vellum. The plants overlay one another with different leaves and blossoms but meet at the roots just below the ground’s surface. The intricate pencil drawing becomes more remote as each layer fades farther and farther from the surface, giving the sense of memory and change.

I have seen drawings like these of Lester’s before but never to such great effect. Their white frames and pale surfaces mirror the room’s white walls surrounded by raised, white molding on door frames and baseboards, a resonance of multiple frames within the domestic setting. It’s so succinct, with works hung in a perfectly spaced series of punctuating moments. Rather than asking the viewer to continually sidle along the room, looking at too many objects, the artist’s selection of work is meant to be savored slowly, with layers that recede into the wall. The subsequent loss of detail mirrors the artist’s intention to contemplate environmental loss, and her protracted, tongue-twisting titles are formed by benign manipulation—by splicing multiple Latin genus and species names together in four-letter increments.

Leigh Anne Lester:
Artificial Arrangement

By appointment
Through February 11

Sala Diaz
517 Stieren

Just when you think you’ve got her figured out as a thumb-to-nose traditionalist, Lester surprises viewers in the next room by displaying only one, untitled, object—a transparent plant growing out of a limpid Plexiglas pool in the middle of the room. The artist handstitched the sculpture, finishing its clear vinyl edges with tiny zig-zags of transparent filaments. While the materials are surprising, the method is a common one for Lester, whose other major body of work involves elaborately embroidering her relatives’ inherited medical illnesses, a series now on view in Chicago.

I’ve seen Artificial Arrangement by daylight, as well as during the night of the opening, and I have to say that daytime is far better. Sala Diaz is half of a cottage-style duplex surrounded by Southern-climate plants. It’s absolutely marvelous in the afternoon to see plants just outside the window scrape at the glass, lean in and ogle the ethereal beauty inside like a baby monkey that curls up to its chicken-wire-and-fur surrogate mother. Lester’s plant’s synthetic leaves catch light and create starry hot spots that are falsely, in environmental terms, alluring. Meanwhile, outdoors real leaves are filtering the sun and turning yellow at the tips, pulling away the bad air and producing sugar, making Lester’s clear version appear superficial and bloodless by comparison. What are we being compelled to follow, with all this fakery? That is the exhibition’s spooky line of questioning about our manipulation of the natural world. Lester’s drawings serve as lovely, shadowy warnings, while her futuristic plant may be a stand-in for yesterday’s Dolly the sheep.

By Catherine Walworth

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