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World in a box 

Nature is sliced up, compartmentalized, and tripped out at Sandler Hudson Gallery

People complain that there is too much greed and hate in the world, but I think there is too much artwork involving flowers. Beauty is great, but in the immortal words of Peggy Lee: "Is that all there is?"

It is therefore commendable that artists Jim Frazer and Jill Larson, both of whom treat plants and flowers in their work, have found a way to create artwork that is something other than a technologically mediated form of flower arrangement.

Frazer, for instance, is interested in how nature has been a carefully cultivated object of study and fascination for humankind.

His four "Curiosity Boxes," on display in Botanical Dreams at Sandler Hudson Gallery, are inspired by 16th- and 17th-century cabinets of curiosities, or "wunderkammern." The cabinet of curiosity was a blend of science, art and stagecraft, a proto-museum in which natural history objects -- from animal bones to stuffed creatures to ostrich eggs -- along with art objects were displayed in wealthy Renaissance homes as exotic examples of foreign travel and humankind's creation.

Frazer's tabletop "Curiosity Boxes" take nature out of context, miniaturizing it and placing it in wooden boxes normally used to house jewels or other small treasures. Within those boxes, Frazer places drawings of trees and plant life to form a kind of stage upon which the artist places little insect-like creatures made from beads and wire. Frazer is clearly intrigued by the human impulse to scrutinize and study nature, to wrest it out of its own natural context and place it in our alien one, often with artificial and theatrical results.

Frazer's concepts are bountiful -- too bountiful, in fact, for work that can't quite support the weight of his ideas. Despite their charming sense of imagination and play, the aesthetics of the "Curiosity Boxes" tend toward the crafty, and the use of beads -- or in one case, New Age glass crystals -- seems more of our time than a reference to the past.

In a related body of work, Frazer takes the Atlanta Botanical Garden as his muse and photographs the exotic palms, ferns and other botanical forms found in the dramatically domed ceiling of the Fuqua Conservatory. Printing onto large sheets of paper, Frazer arranges his collaged pigment prints to give a sense of seeing nature in all its bounty, from multiple angles. By arranging multiple prints into one enormous one, like a fan unfurled, Frazer attempts to render the dramatic, spectacular, even hallucinatory dimension to nature.

Through heavy Photoshop intervention, Frazer attempts to emphasize nature's intoxicating qualities. Naturalistic greens are sent over the top into artificially intense Turtle Wax shades. Frazer also bolsters his interest in the hallucinogenic spectacle of nature by mirroring portions of his images to create doubled forms, like something viewed through a kaleidoscope. But once again, the form is not quite up to par. The colors often come across as far too garish, and the overzealous use of Photoshop mars what should be a spectacular view with a puny, technological thumbprint.

Jill Larson also has content to burn in her photographs of nature. Before relocating to Pittsburgh, the formerly Atlanta-based artist devoted exhibitions to a series of photographs centered on decaying flowers. Her interest in death continues in this exhibition, though in more abstracted form. Larson has again photographed not only plants and flowers as they decay, but birds, whose iridescent emerald or vivid purple feathers will eventually rot and wither.

In an arrangement of 24 3-by-3-inch photographs titled "In a Wild and Dangerous," Larson has devoted an entire wall to extremely close-up imagery of birds and flowers. The colors are intense and details are often obscured. On the opposite wall, in another series of work called Slivers, which captures only a slim portion of a plant or animal form, Larson has taken the same idea and changed the format, housing her images of fowl and flora in long, thin, 6-by-48-inch frames. Those slimmer, rectangular images are a little more striking, but the variation of format feels gimmicky.

Larson's concern in working with flowers has always been to tamper with beauty, to question a certain amount of denial or elision in what humankind deems beautiful. The same vase of flowers, for instance, that symbolizes love, also symbolizes love's inevitable end in decay. But by zeroing in so closely and obscuring that decay in soft-focus and striking color, her message is lost to anyone who doesn't know her history or read her artist's statement. Like Frazer, Larson is an artist burning with ideas, anxious to connect in a provocative way with art history and with humankind's complicated relationship to nature. But as with Frazer, a potentially powerful message gets lost in imprecise form.

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