Lynn Geesaman

at Catherine Edelman, through July 6

Joseph Piccillo

at Perimeter, through July 7

River North is positively abloom: there are flower paintings at three galleries, and flowers are prominent at two more. As any Redon lover knows, flower paintings can be gloriously intense, but those at Belloc Lowndes and Sonia Zaks don’t seem to go much beyond pretty colors, producing the most superficial of responses and eschewing real beauty.

With their sinuous forms and sensitive use of empty space, Amy Lowry Poole’s flower paintings at Ann Nathan are engaging but seem paler versions of the Chinese and Japanese art whose influence they reveal. And Linda Girvin’s 15 lenticular photographs at Jean Albano, 5 of which show flowers, are positively annoying. Using the same process as in three-dimensional postcards, she creates an image in which, when the viewer moves, one set of flowers grows faint while another brightens. But the changing depth illusions associated with this process don’t seem to have any meaning.

Curiously, the lushest of these “pretty nature” shows is the only one that succeeds. Lynn Geesaman’s 24 large color photographs at Catherine Edelman prove once again that pushing an art cliche far enough can often redeem it. Her prints of gardens or parks in Europe and the United States are resplendent with colors supple and diverse enough to avoid kitsch yet rich enough to suggest an impressionist’s fever dream.

Many of Geesaman’s compositions draw the viewer into some otherworldly bower. One of the two called Filoli Gardens, California, 2000 shows a rectangular bed of tulips framed in the background by overhanging pink-blossomed trees and in the foreground by a tree with green leaves and off-white blossoms, creating a subtle pattern of alternating green and pale pink. Although Geesaman’s careful composition imparts order and balance, it never reduces the individuality of each area to an example of the whole. Instead the composition preserves the different patterns and rhythms of each element, setting up a provocative tension between the whole and the parts.

The other key element is Geesaman’s careful darkroom work. Now 64 and living in a Minneapolis suburb, she originally worked as a physicist and later as a high school math teacher. She began photographing three decades ago, taking Brownie pictures of her young children. Soon she was doing her own darkroom work, and after attending a number of workshops (at which she received some helpful but severe critiques from well-known photographers), she began making landscapes, introducing color in 1992. She alters the overall color balance and occasionally individual areas of color during printing and makes a number of test prints before deciding on the final version, usually the one that looks “a tiny bit more surreal.” She’s also developed a darkroom process that “blends one color into the adjacent color, softening the image.” The result of her approach to color and composition is that her images lack the static, completed look of pretty pictures–it’s almost as if one were watching the colors form inside a darkroom tray.

The light colors and airy spaces of Monticiano, Italy, 2000 recall impressionist paintings (which Geesaman loved at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a child). Richly detailed, this seductive image shows many tiny leaves in a variety of sizes and pale greens whose delicacy is in sharp contrast to the solidity of a boulder off to the right. Bagatelle, Paris, France, 1995 shows a stunning patch of flowers under gnarly trees that seem at once sheltering and threatening. The flower patch, set off by some yellow blooms behind it, is blended into the lawn–it’s as if the dark green grass had suddenly turned violet. Geesaman’s softening technique produces a strange mix of effects: textured when the branches are thick, a bit fuzzy when they’re thin. Reflecting on her medium, Geesaman is just as interested in displaying a range of representational possibilities as she is in depicting trees.

A pigeon stands facing the violet flowers and away from us–one of several indications in Geesaman’s pictures of human or animal presence. Two bicycles rest under a tree in Rugen Island, Germany, 1993, and there’s a small railing next to what are apparently steps leading down to the water in Hodges Garden, LA, 2000. These signs of everyday existence work in concert with Geesaman’s lush technique: for every element that lures one into a dream world, there’s another that heightens awareness of the viewing process. Beauty, which involves the eye and mind, cannot be encompassed in a glance.

Joseph Piccillo similarly differentiates his eight large horse drawings at Perimeter from trite nature imagery, like Geesaman engaging the eye and mind by setting up a tension between compositional unity and the individuality of each component. A lifelong Buffalo, New York, resident who teaches at his alma mater, Buffalo State, Piccillo began doing horse drawings when he was struck by a photo of a horse in about 1978. Achieving immediate success, he stopped to focus on other work for much of the 80s because, he told me, he wasn’t “comfortable” with being known as a horse artist. He started again in 1989 when his daughter began riding, and “all of a sudden I was looking at these horses again–I love their anatomy and movement.”

E-131 (2001), done on paper in carbon pencil (“essentially a charcoal pencil that’s a little bit harder,” Piccillo says), shows a horse from the front cantering, its mane streaming behind it in a way that adds to the sense of movement; some creases in its chest streak back in a similar direction. But other areas of the torso are crosshatched in more static patterns. Unable to reduce the lines of the horse to a single movement, the viewer sees each differently rendered part, from hooves to eyes, as a separate entity. While the composition unifies the drawing, it doesn’t reduce its variety.

Each horse is based on one or more photos, some of which Piccillo takes himself; he strips away the riders, the backgrounds, the saddles, and sometimes the bridles. By setting the horses against plain black backgrounds, he focuses attention on his (justifiably praised) draftsmanship: the subtle balance he creates between whites and grays brings every inch to life. The leaping horse in E-105 (1999) is seen in profile, crowding the frame, but again Piccillo never reduces the creature to a single burst of motion. The horse’s veins point in a variety of directions, the tail has two different curves, and part of the mane stands straight up. Though E-105 recalls Edweard Muybridge’s famous series on animal locomotion, its diverse textures provide the kind of complexity impossible in a Muybridge photograph.

Piccillo–who’s no special fan of equestrian paintings and doesn’t ride himself–sees these works as more metaphorical than literal: what interests him is the horse as a sign of “gesture, physicality, and movement” (the other three works in the show include images of his daughter dancing). Two of the eight horse pictures are on canvas, and in these cases Piccillo uses pencil, sometimes softening individual lines with brushes or his fingers; the resulting gray reveals the weave of the canvas. In #19 (1999)–the largest piece at seven by six feet–the horse leaps toward us, its eyes perfectly expressing an animal’s mix of intelligence and near automatism. Charging at us in depth, the horse also seems strangely foreshortened, as if this were a telephoto image. Singularly unified, the composition is made up of singularly unlike surfaces, the legs, hooves, and head all mirroring the diversity within unity found throughout nature.