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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Lisa Frank and Nova Czarnecki reanimate ailing ecosystems in new works at James Watrous Gallery

Birds vanish in the sky of Song Without Words.
Credit:James Watrous Gallery
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Wisconsin artists Lisa Frank and Nova Czarnecki share an interest in the natural world's frailty. Their side-by-side solo exhibitions at the Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery (through June 30) explore this theme with digital photography and visionary painting.

Stilleven, the title of Frank's collection of photos, is the Dutch word for a type of still life that portrays unnatural combinations of natural elements. Winter crops might appear beside summer plants, for example. In the title work, symbols of life (a colorful bird) and death (a rotting orange) sit precariously close to each other. Meanwhile, a vibrant floral arrangement emanates gloom. The background is pitch-black, and Frank has painted shadows onto some flowers' edges, making them look reanimated.

Another piece, Still Life in a Cave, suggests that humans alter the environment to fulfill their aesthetic fantasies. Pictures of cacti and succulents from the UW's greenhouses are grafted together to form a frankenplant. This creation "lives" in a cave that seems too dim to support greenery. But somehow the space crawls with life, including an iguana from the Vilas Zoo. The creature's tongue unfurls toward the cactus sculpture, as if it's a delicious snack or a source of oxygen, not a manmade mirage. A coiled snake sleeps on the other side of the plants, a hint that tinkering with ecosystems is a dangerous pastime.

In several of Frank's photos, a small element - a bird, a butterfly - appears to be vanishing. Something similar occurs in Czarnecki's oil paintings, including Song Without Words. Here, one flock of birds flies through the sky as another rests in a leafless tree. The flying birds are almost the color of the heavens; they look like clouds or memories, perhaps. The perched birds are a motley bunch. They're also an outfit for a ghostly human figure floating through the forest.

Meteor, another one of Czarnecki's works, considers how humans are composed of natural elements. It's one thing to read that the human body is 60% water, but it's quite another to see this point illustrated with goldfish. A young woman floats in the center of the image. Though the tree branches behind her are bare, she nurtures a thriving ecosystem in her dress. Fish swim through its skirt, and pink and red coral line its hem. This fantastic frock also looks electric. Its fabric isn't cotton or rayon but currents that resemble water and lightning. And though the woman's skin is gray as ash, her garment's flora and fauna are an explosion of color and life.

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