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Two shows on Main Street's arts corridor question the physical and cultural world in which we live.

Nature vs. Nurture


Lynda Lowe
Astra Design
Through April 24

"A Question Of Values"
Jorge Benitez
Main Art Gallery
Through May 3

Chicago artist Lynda Lowe, now exhibiting at Astra Design, describes her paintings as "an ongoing dialogue with wonder," and the images that emerge from her contemplation of the mysteries of the natural world are often wondrous.

Unlike your average nature painter, however, Lowe is not concerned with the appearance of nature or the look of the landscape, but rather with the scientific theories that seek to explain natural phenomena. Although her preoccupation with time and space, measure and form are quite modern in both concept and appearance, Lowe's paintings hark back to the Renaissance when many artists viewed art and science as allies in achieving a greater understanding of nature in its myriad manifestations.

Working in oils on panels prepared with gesso or plaster, Lowe echoes her predecessors in the precision with which she renders a skeletal wing or a specimen beetle and the scientific notations that often accompany her images.

The text is sometimes revealing — "Time is relative" — and sometimes obscure, layered or faded. But her intent is more metaphorical than literal, her disposition of images and the deep amorphous spaces in which they reside more modern than antique.

In "Marking Time Series #1-8," an assemblage of seven panels on a chalkboard ledge, Lowe interweaves fragments of nature with astronomical notes on eternity and depictions of scientific instruments. A poetic synthesis of her fascinations with stability in the midst of change and the inevitable relationship between form and measurement, this piece not only states her concerns but visually reflects them as the composition flows and pauses across infinitely subtle surfaces of delicate color. Here, as elsewhere, Lowe's paintings are not tedious explications of complex ideas, but rather aesthetically alluring invitations to join her imaginative exploration of the wonder that surrounds us.

Does strident social commentary make good art? Not very often. More frequently than not, art that seeks to promote a political or social agenda descends to the level of propaganda.

Richmond artist Jorge Benitez readily acknowledges this risk inherent in the paintings now on view at Main Art Gallery in "A Question of Values," and he has decided that the questions he poses are worth that risk. In lurid, television-inspired color, Benitez directly addresses the culture war that currently divides this country and without obviously taking sides, questions the dogmatism of both the left and the right.

Few of the central issues of our time escape Benitez's attention. Darwinism, religion, family values and feminism are all fodder for the artist's brush. Working in a style one might describe as Pop-inspired expressionism, Benitez assaults the eye with color and challenges the mind with incongruous or sharply conflicting images.

In "Will There Ever Be Beautiful Women Again?" an oil on canvas, the artist addresses, among many things, the transience of our notions of ideal beauty and the impact of feminism on that ideal. Marilyn Monroe, in living color, disintegrates into a neon phantom. In "What Will They Tell the Children?" a voluptuous overblown nude floats in a thought bubble above a less than sober looking Kenneth Starr.

They are not subtle images, and although they pose the obvious questions, they cannot, in the end, support the heavy-duty considerations that Benitez seeks to express. Indeed, it is telling that the artist felt compelled to accompany this show with both a lengthy artist's statement and extensive explications of each work. His ideas are far more subtle than his paintings, and the images are too topical to stand for long on their own. Not only, as Benitez acknowledges, will they soon be dated, but what he has to say would be better expressed in words. At its best, visual art eludes the confines of language and speaks on its own

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