John Wickenberg

at Perimeter, through February 7

John Wickenberg’s 18 paintings on paper, canvas, and board at Perimeter recall the works of Albrecht DŸrer, a master of certainty who found joy in the simple solidity of trees, houses, rocks, and grass. Wickenberg’s work similarly glories in its own precision, a precision dedicated in part to rendering palpable such items as a beetle or an empty nest. A branch leads downward to a cluster of 12 dried leaves in Twelve, twisting and curling back on themselves in a rhythmic knot that’s complex enough to seem realistic yet aesthetically perfect enough to raise dead leaves to the level of song. In the tactile Salamander the tiny cracks in a stone are modeled as precisely as the lizard’s body, growing darker toward their narrow centers.

Born in 1944 in Coleman, a small northeast Wisconsin town, Wickenberg now teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. In childhood he drew from nature; he also copied Rembrandt etchings and popular book and magazine illustrations. Later, he especially liked DŸrer. His hope, he told me, is to “give the viewer an opportunity to slow down and see in a different light. If an object is painted or drawn with care and a little intensity, one might slow down and think about it, about nature, a little differently.” But the apparent simplicity of his works and goals is somewhat deceptive: aware of the split between his vision and the modern world, he makes art that isn’t quite as naive as it first seems–or as he first sounds. For all his skill, his paintings lack the diamond precision of DŸrer’s, but many of his works contain, if not postmodern Chinese-box layers, at least one level that acknowledges the anachronistic nature of his quest.

The same precision he gives leaves and animals is also conferred on the piece of paper apparently covering a cup in The Holy Grail: there’s no holy grail to be seen. And the title and design of Just Plain Nuts reveal a touch of self-parody: at the center is a nut-filled paper bag, the nuts’ diverse markings as precisely delineated as the bag’s folds, but a border of nuts marching around the edge makes the whole almost absurdly decorative. If much of Wickenberg’s work suggests that the complex glories of nature offer a kind of redemption, here he seems to acknowledge that such celebrations can also turn back on themselves, repeating to the point of monotony.

But what finally makes Wickenberg’s work so affecting is his melancholy acknowledgment of the impermanence of his subjects. If DŸrer’s certitude was a product of his Christianity, Wickenberg evidences no belief in transcendence: he leaves us with the fact that the living things he depicts, like the very paper he paints on, must eventually decay. It’s also noteworthy that, where DŸrer most often used a white ground, in 13 of the works in this show Wickenberg has painted the ground a solid black.

That this is more than a visual choice is made clear by many of Wickenberg’s subjects. For him the natural world is often strangely lifeless. The leaves in Twelve and the subject of Empty Nest are desiccated to the point that no green is visible. A few other pictures recall vanitas paintings but substitute an animal skull for the human skull: Wickenberg’s subject is less human mortality than the absence of any permanence. Still Life With Skull places an animal skull, a dried Chinese lantern blossom, and a blue marble on a horizontal wooden post, all surrounded by black. The stem twists in what almost seem gestures, signs of the life it once had. Similarly, the wild, coarse grain of the wood curls in a variety of directions, a reminder that this rectilinear block was cut from something that once vibrated with the more unruly rhythms of organic growth.

Wickenberg’s acknowledgment of the futility of his quest is at its most explicit and moving in Letting Go. A hand at the top of the frame appears to have just dropped a tiny gray ball, perhaps another marble. The hand that was grasping the marble is the hand Wickenberg paints with–the hand that, for all its passion and skill, can never really hold onto a decaying world. The way Wickenberg paints the hand, however, implies that this is not due to any failure on the artist’s part but rather to a general truth of nature. Flecked with patches of blue gray, the flesh appears to be discolored the way an older person’s hand might be. But these patches are actually the black background showing through the paint–a sign of the darkness, or the dust to which we all decay, underlying everything.

Margaret Lazzari: Floating

at Gwenda Jay, through February 10

If Wickenberg presents the instability of individual objects as a fundamental condition of nature, the blurring together of individuals in Margaret Lazzari’s 14 swimming-pool works at Gwenda Jay seems due to our culture, whose artificial landscapes and lights sometimes subsume in us their neon aura. Born in Saint Louis in 1953, where she was also raised, Lazzari now teaches at the University of Southern California and lives near Los Angeles. Like Wickenberg, Lazzari says she was never comfortable with abstractions, but where he recalls drawing from nature, she remembers drawing “pretty dresses,” faces, and horses. One group of earlier paintings, influenced by 70s feminism, challenged conventional notions of beauty and ethnicity, she told me, by depicting traditional heroes as a middle-aged African-American woman.

With the broad brush strokes and garish colors of neo-expressionism, Lazzari paints the backyard swimming pools of southern California, often at night, which adds a certain strangeness to her bathing suit-clad subjects. Painting from photographs, and sometimes modifying their colors by computer, Lazzari focuses on the pools’ underwater illumination: her figures are often swamped in or silhouetted by light, which seems to fill the water like a substance. In Absorbed a yellowish light washes over the pink skin of a man floating on his back, creeping up his side to his belly button. The couple and young girl in At the End–based on a snapshot of Lazzari with her husband and child–stand in an oval pool filled with reds and yellows and purples.

Though actual pool lights are typically white, Lazzari has colored them here, making the light more palpable and merging it with the water and her figures’ skin. I thought of the way people seem to lose their identities under exceptionally garish lighting, the yellow lamps of urban streetlights or the grotesquely colored lights of a dance club–of the way our artificial reconstructions of the environment seem to sweep up everything in their path. A planter holding a dark bush or tree in the background of At the End has improbably acquired the same red found in the figures’ skin: one could perhaps theorize that this is a sunset scene, but the raw-meat colors are unlike sunset’s long, clear shadows.

Comparing Lazzari’s show to Wickenberg’s, I thought of her art as providing a reason why his quest for pure and autonomous objects seems so anachronistic. In our culture the lights and lawns and artificial ponds we call pools–whose edges Lazzari generally delineates with relative clarity–envelop us in an eerie twilit world that destroys boundaries and autonomy. Lazzari, however, sees her pool series as having a very different source. The recent deaths of her father and two brothers have made her think about death and about concepts of the afterlife. She’s sometimes felt strongly the presence of the brother who died suddenly, and she remarks that, while “we see birth and death as points in time, in my experience both seem to me periods of transition. My idea was to use water as a visual metaphor for a state other than everyday existence.”

Lazzari acknowledges that most viewers wouldn’t come to these thoughts on their own, but the paintings of silhouetted figures certainly make these ideas plausible. In Amber two adults lounge in an oval pool too small for swimming; the light that appears almost to ooze up from the bottom is at its brightest behind a third person, a girl with her back to us. Though her figure is mostly in silhouette, all three are messy, imprecise presences, mixtures of light and dark merged with the glowing water. The edges of the silhouetted swimmer in Pursuit, a bright light behind him, are rendered so loosely he seems partly swallowed by the light. These are not people with personalities that we come to know; they’re powerful but anonymous presences, human forms that seem about to turn into something else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Amber” by Margaret Lazzari/ “Letting Go” by John Wickenberg.