Leigh Anne Lester’s “Franken-flora”

Appeared in Fall 2009 Art Lies

Leigh Anne Lester's plant mutation (Courtesy artist)

Derived from historical botanicals, Leigh Anne Lester’s graphite and colored pencil drawings on translucent Mylar appear delicate and beautiful. However, each depicts what the artist calls “Franken-flora,” ominous amalgams inspired by the threats and promises of genetic modification. The boundaries between the naturally-occurring and the manmade blur as Lester combines various flowers, vines, seed pods and ferns into individual works of single organisms. Each hybrid portrayed has the potential to upset the natural order of the world, though usually under the guise of improving humankind’s chances of survival.

The purest expression of this conundrum is a deceptively alluring black-and-white realistic illustration, Amalgamate Fusion Untitled. A single root ball branches out into different plants, ranging from acorns to ferns. These unrelated florae appear to form a harmonious unity, though all they really share is Lester’s flawless draftsmanship. Viewers may admire the elegance of this new creation, but on close examination, the construction is obviously unnatural and somewhat menacing – a mutation. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Lester’s imagined genetic modification may seem like genius in the laboratory, but the impact for good or bad can’t be determined until it is set loose in the world.

In a series of four smaller works, Lester uses semi-transparent Mylar to optically blend the same plants in different ways. Each work is composed of four layers of Mylar, each featuring one of four botanical drawings, in graphite and colored pencil. By stacking the layers differently, Lester creates four unique botanical hybrids, similar to shuffling cards in a game of genetic poker. But you can see the various possible combinations of the plants, much like a palimpsest with layers upon layers perceptible beneath the surface.

Lester titled each of these four-ply works by combining the four plants’ genus and species names according to the order in which they are stacked, but only in four-letter increments. Subsequently, the plants sprout tongue-twisting Latinate names such as Dactsemplavalathylorevindulayrushizavuma Macutectstoetubelataorumshasrous. Lester would like to give these plants the patina of scientific respectability, but, like her mash-ups of vegetation, her titles are creative conglomerations that only add confusion to scientific classifications.

A Tangled Amalgam is a diptych, a pair of large shadow boxes that cast mysterious, overlapping shadows on the wall. Lester hand cut the silhouettes of different plants out of four layers of milky Mylar, which she then glued to the front glass of the shadow boxes. The backs of the frames are open, allowing the combined shadows of the layers of plants to play across the wall. Appearing innocent and innocuous as floral wallpaper, these motley shadows also represent the dark side of creativity.

The most chilling vision of the consequences of fooling with Mother Nature, however, is Lester’s sculpture in three parts, Sorghum Halepense Propagated, a simulacrum of Johnson grass created with hand-sewn clear plastic vinyl, invisible thread, Plexiglas and wire. The reproductions have leaves, stems and seed heads, but they’re as colorless and lifeless as plastic water bottles. These sculptures could be artistic harbingers of an apocalyptic future, when nature is but a half-remembered memory.

Leigh Anne Lester showed at the Institute of Texan Cultures.

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