When Joanne Lefrak was in the studio art program at Skidmore, she was infatuated with a few predictable art school obsessions. She wanted to make big, brutish-yet-thoughtful Ab-Ex painting, in the vein of California and Bay Area icons like Richard Diebenkorn, and she wanted to break free of that old painter’s dilemma, the flat rectangle. A diminutive but muscular brunette, like a polite anime figure that might suddenly turn furious, Lefrak painted on canvas drop cloths, the bigger the better. She cut her canvases into the shapes of animal pelts for effect, but wasn’t satisfied. In order to generate more variety in their shape, she began to fold her canvases in half and burn the edges with an acetylene torch. The result was like a Rorschach cut-out. To predict the overall shape, Lefrak decided to use a paper maquette, shaped with a wood engraver. Intrigued with the small models, she tossed aside the huge paintings and began to consider the intricacies of light and shadow. In her June, 2008 exhibition at Box Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lefrak’s work was all done on Plexiglas. Inch-thick slabs were suspended from the ceiling; as light passed through each slab, it hit opaque drawings that the artist had rendered in freehand, to cast haunting, creamy botanical drawings in illustrative shadows.
“The botanical themes are inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings,” says Lefrak, who lives and works in Placitas, New Mexico. “Using light to create shadows, I work with these heavy-handed forces in opposition to create drawings.” The fact that each work must succeed or fail as a simple drawing of a plant, no matter how complex its creation, precedes the realization that Lefrak’s subject matter is the result of manifold considerations on the nature of death. “I’m currently focused on three types of subjects, plants that are extinct or threatened with extinction, plants that are deadly poisonous and monocarpic plants which take a whole life span-maybe 25 years-in order to flower and then suddenly die,” says the artist.
The works do succeed without this knowledge-Lefrak’s nimble draftsmanship and sense of restraint create singular illustrations that sear themselves into the mind’s eye-but the added context makes it even more compelling. She offers additional clues by placing animal life (think poisonous frogs and nectar sucking bats) into the illustrations in an almost motif-life pattern. At other times, Lefrak uses very subtle color from archival marker to tint a flower’s core or a few berries. Several of the works, rather than hanging away from the wall, are in shallow boxes, with Plexiglas as the top surface and the shadow projected onto a pristine back panel.
“I used to make all of my shadow work with very precisely cut paper, arterial and biological systems that were painstakingly cut out, but I was moved toward drawing directly on the Plexiglas through a shipping accident,” says Lefrak. During an exhibition in Ireland organized by curator Klaus Ottmann, Lefrak noticed a small scratch gouged into the protective sheet of Plexiglas covering one of her paper works. “I don’t think anyone else even noticed, but it made me absolutely crazy. But then I saw how fine a line was made and I started to think that maybe I didn’t even need to use paper anymore.”
Working smaller, Lefrak usually sits at her kitchen table and draws. But sometimes, just to mix it up, she dresses up in head-to-toe protective gear, and pulls out the acetylene torch, strolls past the collection of poisonous flowers that serve as still life models, and burns the hell out of something as though she were a small, curious and extremely meticulous angel of death.
Joanne Lefrak’s work was on view from June 13 – July 6, 2008 at Box Gallery, in Santa Fe, NM. She is also part of an upcoming exhibition at Frederieke Taylor, in New York, curated by Bobbie Foshay Miller, which opens mid-October, 2008. Lefrak also will be in a project opening in February, 2009 at the New Mexico Museum of Art.