“The Leaf and the Page,” Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery, James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St. through January 16, 2009.
Replete with a fascinating array of objects thematically addressing the relationship between humanity and plant life, “The Leaf and the Page,” curated by Douglas Stapleton at the Illinois State Museum, strikes me as an exhibition done right. Of particular interest are the contrasts in genre presented by the items, ranging from artwork created by contemporary artists to objects and botanical specimens and drawings taken from the museum and herbarium collections, which were structurally arranged to encourage a visual dialogue between objects and to invoke consideration of the different approaches man has when interacting with the natural world.
Decisions regarding object placement were directly related to the nature of the object, providing the best possible opportunity for interaction by the audience. The most obvious example is Scott Wolniak’s found-object “weed sculptures,” scattered haphazardly on the floor as weeds would appear in nature, so that visitors can walk among them or observe them from afar. Similarly, Carolyn Ottmer’s large metal plants hang from the ceiling near the entrance, providing a strong initial visual impact from outside the gallery’s glass front wall.
The interpretive texts available throughout the exhibit provide extensive information about the artists’ backgrounds and methodologies, as well as specific concepts and details for the pieces described. Interestingly, the curatorial statement is placed innocently among the work in the front room—rather than lavishly displayed at the entrance of the exhibition—which relieves viewers from the edifying position that a curator’s interpretation can sometimes take.
A large, multi-roomed space, the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery could be a daunting area to fill. However, Stapleton secured a nice balance of two- and three-dimensional work to engagingly occupy the galleries. There is a natural flow into and through each room, encouraging the viewer to inspect objects up close, as well providing stunning views of work from afar, such as Melissa Jay Craig’s Disafter, 1998, a wall-hung arboreal cross-section made of books.
While the last room, filled with more traditionally rendered botanical images, displays some beautiful examples that fit the common theme of the exhibition, it lacks the cross-disciplinary contrasts that are the driving force behind the rest of the show. However, the comparison just works to emphasize how this thought-provoking display of diverse works makes “The Leaf and The Page” so engaging, endowing a relatively banal subject matter with a considerable expressive potential.