“I am concerned that time is running out for our planet Earth.”
It’s a dire statement that hits you like a bit of a gut punch, summarizing decades of climate data and lived observation into 12 succinct words. This is how Mira Lehr, octogenarian Miamian and certified living legend of contemporary art, concludes her brief artist statement for “Planetary Visions,” an exhibition of her most recent work, on view and for sale, at Boca’s Rosenbaum Contemporary gallery.
Curated from the artist’s latest two prolific years of productivity, “Planetary Visions” finds the longtime abstract artist—one of the few female artists in the pioneering New York City contemporary movement of the 1950s—channeling her concern for our little blue dot in more figural ways.
Works like “What This Earth Does Not Remember” feature tectonically connected landmasses that resemble global maps of alternate timelines, vaguely familiar formations constructed from burned and dyed Japanese paper atop a painted canvas. The material itself is wispy and fragile, a perfect metaphor for an environment under carbon siege, some 100 seconds away on the Doomsday Clock. A looping fuse adds another dimensional layer atop this eco-collage, indiscriminately scorching this poor planetary atlas, an acknowledgement of global warming that is raw and powerful.
Finally, there’s Lehr’s own handwriting, an elusive cursive script of poetic phrases hugging the coastlines of the landforms, that conveys messages of, I think, beauty and alarm—it’s not always easy to decipher everything, and the verbiage is as much about texture as literature.
I’ve seen a lot of art over my dozen or more years covering culture, but I’ve never seen work quite like this.
In moving away from pure abstraction and toward collage paintings with direct and urgent messaging, Lehr titles her works for transcendent impact, and deploys color for what it signifies: Thus, in “Ocean Rain,” cloudbursts at the top of the frame “perspire”—in the form of vertical drip paint—onto a sea of various blues below. In “Great Barrier Reef,” in invasive swath of orange blazes the sky above the diminishing green of the title reef system below, more of those deadly fuses coiling snakelike between them. In “Magenta and Blue,” actual gunpowder darkens a sky, poised to rain down on purplish forms like a Biblical plague.
That Lehr completed much of this work in 2019, prior to COVID-19’s destructive arrival, makes her a sage, or simply someone following planetary trend lines, or a combination of both. However she developed such prophetic art, “Planetary Visions” is indisputably an exhibition for this moment in time. Works completed in 2020, such as “The Phantom of Golden Sunlight,” which feature foreboding red forms and the skeletal tendrils of what appear to be dead trees, make reference to the California wildfires of this past summer.
The funky shapes of so many Lehr paintings and installations might be called “nationoid” in their resemblance to actual countries. But, as in the hanging installation “A Fine Web,” they dangle like puzzle pieces in the ether, seeking points of connection but not finding them on a broken planet. And in light of the pandemic, I couldn’t help but see, in Lehr’s almost-Rorschachian shapes, the very images of a metastasizing disease—an alien agent eating away an otherwise unpolluted canvas. This is, indeed, Earth in 2021. It’s a good thing we have artists like Mira Lehr to help us see the unseen—and, with luck and intention, survive it.
“Mira Lehr: Planetary Visions” is on display through Feb. 6 at Rosenbaum Contemporary, 150 Yamato Road, Boca Raton. All works are for sale. Visiting hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; temperatures will be checked and masks are required. For information, call 561/994-9180 or visit rosenbaumcontemporary.com.