At the Lowe Art Museum, a coffin-shape stainless-steel box topped with a dainty pillow fumigates the space with the cloying scent of dying flowers.
Valeska Soares's sculpture, Fainting Couch, is pregnant with stargazer lilies, which remain unseen yet powerfully perfume the air from within the perforated sterile structure, suggestive of man's attempts to control and dominate the natural world.
It is part of "Material Terrain: A Sculptural Exploration of Landscape and Place," an exhibit that unites 11 artists whose large-scale sculptures provoke thoughts of our uneasy relationship with the environment in a high-tech world.
The works are varied, often huge, and created from a wild arsenal of materials ranging from poured fiberglass, deer carcasses, polyethylene, aluminum, and even wheat grass.
At the entrance of the show, Roxy Paine's Scumaks are amorphous forms that are entirely machine made. His white blobs look like someone has squeezed the contents of a giant toothpaste tube all over the floor.
Next to them Kendall Buster's Parabiosis III, a large work made of shade cloth stretched over weird larvae-shape steel armatures, hangs overhead. Evocative of mutant seedpods or microscopic cells fleeing the Matrix, Buster's spacey bug has the wingspan of a condor and is the same metallic green-blue color of the common blowfly.
In the next gallery, Paine focuses his sights on the forest's cycle of growth and decay in a tasty wall piece that from far away might be confused for a whopping pepperoni pie. Concocted from epoxy and fiberglass, Dry Rot depicts the rings of a tree trunk melting into the Earth's crust and sprouting mushrooms like a runaway rash.
On the floor nearby, Donald Lipski pulls off a Bunyanesque ruse with Exquisite Copse (Big Knot), a mixed-media truncated tree tied off at the center as if it were the Gordian knot. The playfully misshapen limbs duplicate nature so perfectly that Lipski could easily dupe woodpeckers into busting a beak on one of the mind-boggling works. In a back room, another impressive faux log piece is reminiscent of a massive Hula-Hoop.
Michele Brody also mines themes of growth and decay with Grass Skirt IV, arguably one of the most engaging pieces in the show. Think of Rube Goldberg with a hydroponics kit and you begin to get the picture. Brody has created a hoop skirt-shape structure inside an old-fangled washtub using copper pipes, lace fabric, a grow lamp, and a water pump.
In the folds of the dank, mildewing fabric, which is wrapped around the pipes, she has embedded grass seeds that have sprouted like weeds and will continue growing in the gallery in the form of a dress until they wither away. As the viewer circles the work, which rises above eye level, the tinkle of dripping water tickles the ears.
Immediately behind it, Ming Fay's Money Tree — fashioned from colored paper and wire — seduces the eyes while speaking to greed. His hanging garden snakes ceiling to floor in a corner as its vines and stems branch out into the space, sprouting flowers and fruit in light-catching gold, red, green, and orange hues. Embedded in the gold leaves are small coins, a nod to Chinese lore that gardens are rife with symbols of growth, fruition, decay, and replenishment while reminding us to remain harmonious with change.
Ripe with fecundity and rot, John Ruppert's Three Aluminum Pumpkins are based on an actual pumpkin that tipped the scales at 700 pounds. His beanbag-chair-size gunmetal gray sculptures are spread out on the gallery floor and stand knee high. The three 4-H ribbon contenders are cracked in spots, putrefying in a frozen state. He seems to be commenting on the nature of genetically tinkered foods.
German-born Ursula von Rydingsvard, who lived in post-World War II refugee camps as a child, creates imposing structures that evoke the grind of life in the rural forests of Poland.
Unlike other artists in the show, she works with natural materials to hint at rough-hewn architecture on a massive scale. Her astonishing Hej-Duk, chiseled from cedar beams, swallows an entire gallery wall and looms over spectators like petrified Stone Age bleachers or the steps of an Aztec ruin. The wood is scarred and jagged from abuse as if hacked out with a primitive axe making for one of the most powerful statements here.
In a rear gallery, Dennis Oppenheim, one of the first earth artists of the Seventies, shifts gears with Digestion, Sculpture, a 1988 assemblage in which he has recycled the bodies of dead deer. He has dunked their carcasses in poured fiberglass, leaving their tawny coats blackened and slathered in what appears to be a blue, orange, and green patina of melted candle wax.
The two deer flank each other in the center of the space. Copper tubing extends from their chest cavities to a propane tank. When the gas is switched on, their 12-point antlers burst into flames in this combustible stab at an ecosystem run amuck.
Wendy Ross's Bloom resembles a jumbo jellyfish whose skin has been crafted by delicately woven, powder-coated steel plates. The 17-foot-wide piece nearly consumes the space and mimics nature's curveball propensity for bizarre design while subtlety suggesting the threat of a genetic engineering mistake.
Across from it, Jim Surl's Big Walking Eye Flower is a pinwheeling swirl of eyes that gawk at viewers as if imploring us to take a hard look at nature and to tiptoe more gingerly while stewarding the environment.
This show aims a laserlike focus on the complex and urgent issues humanity faces if the planet is to survive our destructive tendencies. It succeeds in raising these questions while reminding us that nature is quite capable of biting back.