Since its inception in 2005, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s “Art at Fairchild” program has attracted such artists as Dale Chihuly, Will Ryman, Roy Lichtenstein and Yoko Ono, who have all created installations in the 83-acre garden. As with loud music in trendy restaurants, contemporary art has become a kind of mandatory ambient constant in modern life: To many Fairchild visitors, all outdoor art installations simply detract from the natural wonders of Fairchild.
That said, the 3,000-square-foot indoor Adam R. Rose and Peter R. McQuillan Arts Center, opened in 2014 and featuring exhibitions by such artists as Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher, has become a welcome addition to the Fairchild experience. The newest Arts Center artist on view is Mira Lehr, who is presenting the multimedia exhibition “Second Nature.”
In the past, Lehr has exhibited at such institutions as the Bass Museum of Art and the New Museum in New York; she also has taught master classes with YoungArts and published a book, “Mira Lehr: Arc of Nature.” As with previous exhibiting artists at the Fairchild Arts Center, her book and the pieces on view are for sale, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting Fairchild.
Lehr’s work utilizes burnt fuse lines, gunpowder, resin, Japanese rice paper and dyes to explore the nuances of the natural world. In the catalog text accompanying the “Second Nature” exhibition, Thom Collins, former director of Pérez Art Museum Miami and current Barnes Foundation director in Philadelphia, writes, “Here is Mira Lehr’s recent work, playful, mysterious, and as it wrests beauty from danger and violence, in the deepest sense, sublime.”
Lehr was on hand recently at Fairchild and proved to be the ideal guide to the “Second Nature” exhibition. Jellyfish, lovely yet lethal creatures that Lehr finds “seductive and beautiful,” are the inspiration for “Luminous Poison I” and “Luminous Poison II” (2011), works made with resin, dyed Japanese rice paper and ink. A shadowy mass of darkness, created from deep dark ink on Japanese paper, is accented by bursts of red and strands of steel jewelry chain painted an ominous black to echo the feathery tentacles of jellyfish.
Another piece, “Sound Curtain,” (2011), resembling the underside of a jellyfish, is a mix of acrylic, burned Japanese rice paper, gunpowder, ignited fuses and resin on canvas. A video monitor in one corner of the exhibition space shows how Lehr sets fire to strips of fuses on the surface of the paper and the canvas to create feathery burn marks. The process looks like big shades-of-July 4th fun, and after ignition, the strips have a definite jellyfish-tentacle quality.
The paintings “Red Interval” and “Yellow Interval” (2011) use the same techniques, with intervals of horizontal strips that create a rhythm reminiscent of music notations on sheet music.
A 2016 triptych called “Approaching the Singularity” — was created for the “Second Nature” exhibition — infuses deep blue acrylic paint to contrast with lines of ignited-fuse strips and heavy white acrylic-paint creations resembling sea anemones. Lehr has long been influenced by Japanese art, and stretches of her creations are relatively spare. “The spaces that aren’t filled with anything,” she says, “are just as important, and tell you just as much, as the spaces with imagery.”
One of her paintings, “Stone Flowers” (2016) became a design for a hand-knotted wool rug, loomed in Nepal for the designer and retailer Stephanie Odegard. Against a gray backdrop of abstracted vegetation, a bright red flower seems to be dripping blood. Lehr has also done mixed-media-on-wood screens; one of her most engaging, “Radiance” (2007), seems to echo bellflowers falling against the light of a sun or moon.
Lehr is an old-school Miami Beach artist who goes back to the Miami 1960s, trained at classes from James Billmyer — a longtime student of Hans Hofmann — and Robert Motherwell, who taught at the now-gone Miami Art Center on Kendall Drive. “In the winter, we used to get all kinds of important artists to come down and teach,” Lehr says. “At the end of his classes, Motherwell said to us — we were all women — ‘I’ve enjoyed working with you all, but please don’t contact me for referrals or anything else.’ ”
Laughing, Lehr recalled, “He liked me, but remarks like that are why Motherwell was called the Baby Face Killer in the art world.”
In 1969, Lehr had the honor of being one of 26 participants who worked with Buckminster Fuller on the initial “World Game” at the New York Studio School. The project was designed to create a scenario that would harness available energy resources — solar energy, wind, tides, etc. — for the benefit of all mankind. (Ed Schlossberg, who eventually married Caroline Kennedy, was the group leader, and such luminaries as John Cage and Isamu Noguchi turned out for the “World Game.”) At the end of the six-week session, the group issued a “World Game Report,” with Buckminster Fuller noting that the “World Game” successfully argued against the prevailing doctrine of the time that “only the side with the greatest arms can survive.”
In the 1960s, Lehr was also one of the co-founders of the Continuum Gallery on Miami Beach, one of the first women’s co-op galleries in the Southeast. The last incarnation of the space, on Lincoln Road, was in the current Books & Books location. The Continuum lasted through the early 1990s at various addresses; for Lehr, it was all about changing Miami.
“Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get away from Miami Beach. At 15, I went to boarding school, then Vassar. When I got married, we moved here for my family, and there was nothing in Miami Beach. So we brought everything down to the Continuum: artists like Roberto Juarez, James Brooks, and John Chamberlain; 4th dimension mathematician Thomas Banchoff; the gallerist Betty Parsons, who showed Jackson Pollack early on; Buckminster Fuller and photographer Roman Vishniac,” she said.
“At one point, the Continuum had studios on 51st Street near Pinetree Drive, and Thomas Harris — who wrote ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ — kept his writing office there. One day, he came over and looked at my images of butterflies: After that, I saw the famous movie poster with the moth and the skull on Jodie Foster’s mouth. We all had great times then, helping each other.”
If You Go
What: “Second Nature,” a multimedia exhibition by Mira Lehr.
When: On view through Oct. 3.
Where: Adam R. Rose and Peter R. McQuillan Arts Center, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Miami.
Cost: Gallery entry is included in Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden admission, $12 to $25.
Info: 305-667-1651, www.fairchildgarden.org