Lynda Lowe: By a Grace of Sense

at Gwenda Jay/Addington, through November 13

Philip Livingston: Open Book

at Sonia Zaks, through November 13

Anne Howard: Curious Links

at I Space, through November 10

Metaphors of exploration and discovery describe an encounter with great art in John Keats’s 1816 sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”: he says he “felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” But thinkers and artists in the past century have questioned the notion of “truth,” making doubt rather than certainty our principal artistic paradigm.

Lynda Lowe’s ten paintings at Gwenda Jay/Addington simultaneously offer the precision of scientific knowledge and the romance of unnameable moods and emotions, fanciful imagery, and evocative symbolism. Dense with scientific diagrams, written texts, and carefully limned images of birds or simple mechanisms, they resemble the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (and Lowe told me she included one text by Galileo). Painted on wood panels with additional insets bearing individual images, her works recall scientific illustration, giving the objects depicted a stunning physicality. The drawings and texts (many not in English) suggest secret knowledge or the indecipherable writings of some lost civilization.

The 80-inch-wide Release shows a bone, a seashell, a sprouting seed, a landscape. Between these images are variable color fields punctuated by incised geometrical diagrams and a spiral based on Fibonacci numbers, a series evident in growth patterns in nature. Some images have private meanings: Lowe, who’s traveled in Tibet, says that a bird’s wing attached to a bowl is “a reference to vessels put on altars as offerings in monasteries.” The wing expresses “the notion of letting the offering go.”

Each painting sets up a powerful tension between analysis and flights of fancy. One of the inset panels in Release shows six speckled eggs painted in such detail they seem palpable. Above them a rectangular view of an indistinct gray landscape–perhaps a field or body of water–below an orange sky functions as a kind of window beckoning the viewer toward an unknown beyond. Long interested in Jungian archetypes, Lowe says that the egg is “a symbol of fertility and potential, and the horizon a potent symbol of the future,” while land suggests both “present and past.”

Lowe–who’s 48 and has lived in the Chicago area since 1980–made abstract paintings on handmade felt until about five years ago, when she read Leonard Shlain’s book Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light. His insights impressed Lowe and led her to other reading that also made her want to incorporate scientific drawings in her art. Her approach is associative and poetic, however, rather than analytical: “Science and art share the investigative process, questioning being on the edge of the frontier of what is known and unknown, what is knowable and not knowable.” Since felt makes colors and lines less precise, she switched to wood panels.

Book of Commons: Be Still is one of a series of paintings Lowe did for her last show (more can be seen at A single inset takes the shape of a book, its sides angled out slightly from the picture plane. The left “page” shows geometrical diagrams and a pendulum, the right a flowering plant. While any of these images might be used as an illustration in a book, the loose relationship each image has with the others contrasts with one’s expectations for repositories of knowledge. And together the two pages suggest that science and art have a symbiotic relationship: poetic objects are enhanced by science’s precision while science itself can be allusive, poetic, uncertain.

Philip Livingston’s 13 sculptures at Sonia Zaks all take the shape of books. Wood panels hung on the wall like paintings resemble two curved open pages, calling to mind knowledge and certainty. But Livingston writes in his statement that his “themes are memory, uncertainty, and the ambiguity of public/private experience.” The purposely indistinct images in Open Book: Fears and Fables include two white blobs set against larger dark blobs on a silk panel at left, similarly shaped dark blobs at right, and a hulking red mound below. Made with a whole grapefruit and a half eggplant dipped in paint and rolled around, these slightly threatening blobs are a way of “referencing human forms,” Livingston says. Like Lowe in her “Book of Commons” series, he sets up a contrast between the expectations raised by a book shape and the evocative forms within it.

A Chicago native, Livingston taught for 35 years at the University of Tennessee before retiring last year at 59; in June, he returned to Chicago. He’s made gallery and public sculptures and performance/installation work but nothing like this series before. In Open Book: Body and Spirit, a drawing of a female nude oriented to resemble a landscape stretches across both pages but still doesn’t quite fit: the head and lower legs are out of the frame, as if erotic imagery couldn’t be contained the way a book’s text and illustrations are. The “spirit” of the title seems to be represented by seven yellow surveyor’s flags flying on poles above the wood: rising from the body, they would presumably flutter in a breeze. Yet they also look a bit goofy, their uninflected yellow nowhere near as supple as Livingston’s sketch. Seeming to joke about artists’ efforts to capture the spirit, Livingston explores not only the limitations of knowledge but also of poetic aspirations.

Livingston’s wryness is also evident in Open Book: Season’s End, which shows the corner of a room with tufts of rope filling the floor. Given the title, I took this image as a reference to harvest, the clusters of rope recalling bales of hay. On an inset of a blackboard the words “it’s fine,” repeated four times in script, mix sincerity and self-parody. The warm tones of the walls and the corner itself invite the viewer in while the repetition of “it’s fine” suggests that the need to find certainty in words is suspect.

Anne M. Howard’s nine paintings and four sculptures at I Space don’t refer to texts, or to language-oriented knowledge, at all. Instead her spare works deny the very idea of communicable knowledge. The three paintings in her “Connections and Coverings” series present irregularly curved black shapes resembling tree limbs; jutting from each one are black “branches” too straight edged to be organic. At the end of each branch is a yellow circle like a glowing opening covered by a grid of thin red lines. At first it seems the grid prevents us from entering some luminous world, but the circles aren’t really painted with the perspective necessary to support this idea: the branches don’t turn toward us in such a way that we could “look into” them.

As an undergraduate Howard, who’s now 29, first majored in electrical engineering and mathematics (she has an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently lives in her native Alabama). And the five paintings in her “Connections” series resemble circuit diagrams, showing complex grids whose lines are highlighted in red whenever they intersect. Pointedly nonreferential, these paintings nevertheless suggest the idea of connection; Howard told me she thinks about underlying connections a lot, including the way a grocery store scan of your discount card “can determine what kind of mail you get.”

Blankness and emptiness are explicit in Howard’s strongest piece, Notions: Orange. An installation occupying a 29-foot-wide wall, it’s made of ladder-shaped rickrack hanging in widely separated vertical and horizontal strips. No more than three of them intersect, and many hang alone; a few are set almost forlornly in a corner or near the floor. Oddly affecting, the piece seems permeated by sadness, emptiness. Acknowledging art’s limits, Howard not only abjures the grand statement but courts its opposite, creating work that’s curiously mute.