As you immerse yourself in the dark, enchanting worlds of Carrie Lederer’s paintings and sculpture, gravity gives way. It is difficult to tell if you are peering down into layers of tangled growth on a mossy forest floor; ahead, at floating flora and fauna in shadowy, green-tinted water; or up, at nebulae and constellations. The view could also be through a microscope, examining the millions of tiny creatures that populate every surface of the living environment. As the artist observes: “A single square foot of plant life can offer as much content as the huge night sky.”
Inspired in part by the garden that lies between her house and studio, Lederer has developed an exquisitely detailed vocabulary of forms with which she creates a chaotic, profoundly modern view of nature, showcased in a ten-year survey, Wondrous Strange.
Garden paintings have a long history; in the 18th century, idyllic vistas actually served as the source of inspiration for the style of landscape design characterized by idealized, picturesque views of vast lawns punctuated with strategically placed swaths of shrubbery and “ruins”. Such gardens (and paintings) were meant to offer the illusion of attractive wildness, while man-made elements generated both a sense of scale and a reassuring presence.
In contrast, the world into which Lederer plunges viewers is radically unpeopled. It is the inconceivably complex, micro/macro world beyond the seen, represented by a tangle of meticulously painted forms that echo each other even as they assert uniqueness. Like snowflakes or DNA, these forms are fractals—a kind of mesmerizing geometric pattern that can repeat itself at wildly varying scales, from mountain ranges and river systems to microscopic crystals. In Lederer’s compositions, layers of these shapes recede into darkness until we can’t see where they end. Land of Bird II’s floating blue clusters of seedy forms seem to glow with some kind of fantastic bioluminescence, invoking not only the facts of science, but the mysterious fictional world of fairyland alluded to by William Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6), a twilit garden featuring a duo of little girls holding glowing lanterns, or—more ominously—the forest surrounding Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais’ dark stream cradling a dead Ophelia.
In a way, the images and objects presented in Wondrous Strange are like a manifesto for the reunification of science and magic, reminding us that we live in a world in which chaos theory, the very existence of the human micro-biome, and improbably oxygenated comets daily demonstrate that our insistence on the difference between the rational and the irreconcilable might need to be put aside. In the 1950s and 1960s of Lederer’s childhood, science functioned as a kind of quasi-religion, enjoying a prominence in daily life and public education that is hard to conceive of today. But it was a science that had all the answers– that would make everything Better. The kind of science that brought us the many miracles of Dow Chemical, and the astonishing fantasy that we could make everything we needed out of plastic while we conquered nature by killing its so-called undesirable parts.
Those days are long gone. Still, Lederer’s work reminds us that wonder might yet save us, as it describes a teeming biosphere in which everything and everyone lives in a state of profound interdependence. The sculptural works included here seem to represent a kind of ordering of this beautiful chaos—a simplification and stylization of its forms. Spheres and smooth rocks meticulously painted with patterns are joined together into larger accumulations; some, like The Shape of Nature (2006-2015) suggest cheerful, playful museum dioramas. In contrast, a painting like Portal (2014) seems to offer transport into an enchanted hideout from modern life– not the Zen kind of retreat space, consisting of a few rocks and raked gravel, but an uncontrollable, exuberant, constantly changing place full of more kinds of life than you can shake a stick at. After all, as Fritjof Capra, in The Tao of Physics, once observed, “Mystics understand the roots of the Tao but not its branches; scientists understand its branches but not its roots. Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both.”
Carrie Lederer: “Wondrous Strange, painting, sculpture and installation, 2005-2015” @ Diablo Valley College Art Gallery through November 25, 2015.
About the Author:Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 85 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.