Invisible Threats

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Legacy, 2014. 44" x 30". Colored Pencil on Stonehenge. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery

Kathleen Rooney on Lauren Levato Coyne’s Wolf Peach

Fittingly for the shift from the flowering of summer to the withering of autumn, on September 5, the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago opened their fall season with a set of three simultaneous solo shows designed to address the issues of death. It included the cyanotypes of Teresa James, meditating on religion and faith, and the mixed media and painted gloves and dresses of Ellen Greene, concentrating on murder ballads. And perhaps most memorably, it included Wolf Peach, a collection of intricate yet spare drawings by Lauren Levato Coyne, lush in color and rich in deliberation on the intergenerational effects of poisons, both natural and unnatural, upon the mental and physical health of individuals and populations. Levato Coyne’s realistic and representational yet impossible and dream-like images invite the viewer to contemplate the visibility of visual art and the invisibility of toxins and their impacts on the body. 

The show’s title itself, Wolf Peach—a translation of lycopersicum, the species name for the tomato plant—speaks to Levato Coyne’s concerns with hybrids and blending, as well as her ever-present elicitation of the tension of opposites. Each of the ten images, ranging in size from the 10 x 10-inch “Blistering Agent” (evoking the manmade weaponized chemical Agent Orange, originally believed to be a defoliant with no deleterious effects on humans) to the 44 x 30-inch “Legacy” (depicting a partly nude woman with green snakes in her abdomen instead of viscera) calls to mind the idea of the pharmakon—the drug that can be both a poison and a remedy, or a cause of illness that can also be its cure. If one considers the words Wolf Peach separately, one might think: a wolf is beautiful and wild, and can be the sign of a healthy ecosystem, but it might also tear you to shreds were you to encounter it in that ecosystem. And one might also think: a peach is a delicious and ostensibly healthy snack, but has a cyanide pit at its center and might be covered in pesticides that you can neither see nor taste. In fact, “lycopersicum” comes from the allegation in Central European folklore that witches and wizards used deadly nightshade to transform themselves into werewolves; when the tomato was introduced to Europe, its similar appearance to its close cousin nightshade caused it to be feared as a poison and given a name that alluded to its falsely magical properties—another instance of vision being an unreliable detector of toxicity.

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Blistering Agent, 2014. 10" x 10". Colored Pencil on Bristol. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery

Levato Coyne builds tension not merely in the content of her images, which are as disturbing as they are pleasant to behold, but in their composition as well—each one insists on a vivid demarcation between space that is full and space that is unoccupied. Negative space offers the viewer an implicit invitation to fill it in—to imagine the rest of the suggested narrative, to try to see what can’t be seen. Levato Coyne’s work is emphatic in its use of negative space, surrounding each intense and delineated image with vacant whiteness, which makes the subjects and their beauty stand out starkly. But the unworked expanses’ potential seems as though it could just as easily be ominous as it could be optimistic—like a mountain lake that is lovely and clear, but whose clarity you later learn is owing to the fact that it’s been poisoned and is therefore unsuitable to life. 

It can be hard, at times, to tell for sure what exactly the images are saying about poison: snakes—known, of course, for their venom—appear often, as do monarch butterflies, which develop and store a poison known as cardiac glycosides, derived from the milkweed leaves they eat as larva. But this ambiguity seems appropriate inasmuch as often we don’t realize that we are being poisoned, either because we are unwittingly doing it to ourselves, or having it done to us through our environment and its contents both natural and unnatural, and by toxins that are administered both by forces outside our control (corporations, pollution) and by our own hands (foods, drugs both legal and illegal). In the image “Headmistress,” for example, Levato Coyne depicts a female’s left hand, held out and open-palmed, truncated at the wrist at which a profusion of monarch wings sprout outward. Instead of a forearm, the butterfly appendages give way to a pair of crossed arrows whose blue bands suggest veins. Are the butterflies there to heal the wound or to feed off it? Or are they meant to be the pulse, particularly the abnormal pulse, often characterized as a “flutter”? Are the arrows poisoned, or are they IVs containing an antidote or remedy?  Meanwhile, the title itself pushes the viewer to consider questions of autonomy and power: who poisons us and by what authority or permission?

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Headmistress, 2014. 17" x 11". Colored Pencil on Bristol. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery

Another drawing, “Indiana,” depicts a pair of dainty goat feet, hooves chopped neatly off at the ankle, tied together with a black satin ribbon, bedecked in nightshade flowers and topped with a poison dart frog, as if to make an eclectic bouquet. They put the viewer in mind of a charm or a talisman—the ideas or things we carry or consume in order to combat the corruption being wrought upon us. They also raise the possibility that perhaps what we think will protect us will be ineffectual at best or outright harmful at worst, as we try to be healthy  without realizing that our health is under siege in ways we can’t perceive or can’t control.

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Indiana, 2014. 17" x 11". Colored Pencil on Bristol. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery 

Taken as a set, the ten images that comprise Wolf Peach encourage the viewer to consider that it may be better to think of death as a process, and not as an either/or proposition. Better to conceive of a spectrum of morbidity, a gradual shading into mortality, than a switch to be flipped: on or off, dead or alive.

In this regard, Levato Coyne’s show has an apocalyptic vibe, but not a single-event catastrophic apocalypse, or the abrupt dystopia imposed from outside that so much apocalyptic film and literature suggest. Even the titles of the images “Heirloom” and “Legacy” seem to call into question what our caretakers and predecessors have done both to and for us and what they leave us holding. More subtle and therefore more scary, Levato Coyne’s implied apocalypse is unspoken, gradual, and partly conducted by our own hands as well as the hands of those who come before us, and maybe even those who love us.

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Heirloom, 2014. 44" x 30". Colored Pencil on Stonehenge. Courtesy Packer Schopf Gallery

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author, most recently, of the novel O, Democracy!. Follow her @KathleenMRooney

Wolf Peach runs at the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago through November 1, 2014 http://www.packergallery.com/