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Art in America

October, 2007
Pia Fries at CRG

By JONATHAN GILMORE

The mixed-medium compositions in Pia Fries’s ongoing project, “Loschaug,” were impelled by a book about insects and plants illustrated by Maria Sibylla Merian. A 17th-century naturalist, Merian demonstrated that metamorphosis from a chrysalis–and not (as the church saw it) spontaneous generation from mud–is how a moth or butterfly emerges. Taking such metamorphosis as her subject, the Swiss-born, Dusseldorf-based Fries treats nature, like art, as a source of both marvelous creation and entropic decay.

She depicts the subjects of Merian’s book more in a physical than pictorial manner, with thickly built-up passages of paint on the surfaces of gessoed and silk-screened wood panels that mimic the textures and patterns–the striations, lattices, spindles and scales–of insect morphology. The quasi-sculptural elements of these panels, in vivid colors that suggest a butterfly’s wing, frequently abut or overlap without approaching harmonious integration. Indeed, although her work is about nature, Fries’s compositions evince no aspiration to organic unity. Their elements clash not only in color, texture and shape, but in the pictorial schemes they are drawn from, with heavy, globular abstract forms mirroring and elaborating the purely pictorial, black-and-white silkscreened images of Merian’s engravings.

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Sometimes the works in “Loschaug” seem to simulate the actual body of an insect or plant; in other cases they suggest camouflage patterns. Still other compositions involve purely decorative designs abstracted from the natural world, as in Palimpsest Surinam II (2005), a silkscreened frieze based on palm leaves, or Dover Book “Erucarum Ortus” (2005), with its woven ribbons of paint. The only unifying strategy here is the arrangement of components, in such works as the large, four-part Schwarze Blumen “Erucarum Ortus” (2005), to suggest presentation in a display case or on an illuminated white table.

The combination of such different registers of representation may recall the fusion of painting, advertising imagery and newsprint in Rauschenberg’s silkscreened canvases. But whereas those earlier juxtapositions had a leveling, unifying effect, Fries emphasizes the contrast between Merian’s flat, seemingly objective scientific observations and the wildly expressive ends to which they are deployed. While the naturalists’ goal, typified by Merian, was to systematically catalogue an unimaginable level of biodiversity, Fries’s aim is to show that nature is always out of the reach of any snapshot representation or synthesizing account, whether proposed by science or art.