“Ellen Lanyon:

Transformations,

Selected Works From 1971-1999″

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts to May 7

Do you remember the quirky old lady who lived down the street in that house with the overgrown hibiscus? Adults politely referred to her as “touched” when they complained about the teeming squirrel population and the 10-foot sunflowers sprouting behind her gates. But to you, her yard was an ancient Roman ruin and her cracked flowerpots were historic artifacts. You’d have given up a week’s Good Humor money for a chance to play in that world.

Many of artist Ellen Lanyon’s exuberant, surreal canvases offer the same kind of jumbled fodder for the imagination as that old lady’s garden. And the artist’s cockatoos, earthen vessels, and thimbles are just what you’d expect to find in the old lady’s house. But the 50-odd works in “Ellen Lanyon: Transformations,” the 73-year-old artist’s late-career retrospective, are cautionary in a way few spinsters ever are: Lanyon is Rachel Carson with a paintbrush, reminding us that while we dine on grilled swordfish, our finned, furry, and feathered friends are being crushed beneath the backhoe of man’s encroachment.

Like a visual Watership Down, Lanyon’s ideal but threatened animal kingdom is a world where fish jump through the air like Dominque Dawes while the evidence of man—in the ominous form of guns, sundials, and polluted rivers—lurks on the sidelines. To inject levity into her save-the-snails agenda, Lanyon turns to absurd juxtapositions and fantastical imagery, most notably in her work from the ’70s and early ’80s. But in recent years, it seems as though Lanyon has traded in her sense of humor for a Sierra Club membership. She just can’t keep her finger from wagging.

Lanyon makes an unlikely eco-warrior. When she was pounding the Chicago pavement in her youth, the closest she got to wildlife was the Midget Village at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The image of that odd, living dollhouse seared itself into her 7-year-old brain and shaped her early canvases, which combined complex imagery of animals drawn from taxidermic specimens and junk-shop trinkets. But despite this early fascination with the animal world, Lanyon didn’t take up the conservation cause until the mid-’70s: Her first trip to the Florida Everglades at that time became a kind of enviro-awakening. After that expedition, the artist’s ecological crusade began to play out on her canvases, and it serves as the starting point for this show.

Her ’70s work shows a fresh marriage of environmental imperative to surrealism. These whimsical works, tucked in the museum’s upper-level Arkansas Gallery, include several renditions of intricate wooden boxes bursting with wildlife, which look like two-dimensional versions of Joseph Cornell’s surrealist boxes from the ’40s. Instead of stowing photographs or shot glasses in her boxes, as Cornell did, Lanyon populates them with animals drawn from figurines or nature magazines. In Mrazek Pond, wading birds and fish emerge from compartments of a box too small to hold them, like a family of bunnies emerging from a magician’s hat. When Lanyon gives wildlife the magical ability to change shape and size, she extracts sympathy from awe: If animals are that amazing, who wouldn’t want to protect them? It’s a subtle and convincing manipulation.

The show’s most elegant argument for conservation comes in the lithograph Hermit Crab (1976). In it, a crab drags a two-story Cape Cod house in lieu of his shell. The scene’s absurdity is a brilliant hook—this could be a page from Punch. When you look closer, the crustacean’s earnest expression is melancholy but dutiful, as if he

accepts his burden as a fact of life. Here, respect for the crab’s humility breeds outrage at his plight. Funny and sad at the same time, Lanyon’s reproach sinks deep.

But later, when Lanyon’s Green Party polemic overtakes her wit, the artist’s works devolve into suffocating didacticism. The 1992 canvas One of Many Trophies portrays a lumbering alligator, jaws wide, minding his own business in a soupy swamp. Superimposed on the foreground, in crisp relief, a cheap alligator-skin purse dangles midair. This painting might as well have been commissioned by the American Wildlife Federation and titled The Evils of Ferragamo.

Ditto the series of landscapes in colored pencil pitting natural monuments against the pernicious products of human culture. For Lanyon, the History of the World I (1990) boils down to a monumental rock plinth towering majestically behind a little tableau of a draftsman’s triangle, a sundial, and an object that looks like a gun-pipe hybrid—an assemblage she largely reprises a short time later in Persistence of Invention (1991), throwing in a protractor for good measure. The sermon? Man’s attempts at taming nature look pretty silly next to a million-year-old rock. She could get away with rehashing this timeworn duality if her style were in any way revelatory. But her rocks and cliffsides look so flat and wan that they can’t distract us from this contrived tableau—which resembles the kind the instructor asks you to build in Drawing I.

Lanyon’s punch lines are most successful when the element of surprise is on her side—but she pulls out the same surprises time and again. She’s especially fond of posing God’s creatures alongside the flea-market kitsch we turn them into. In the 1978 canvas Toad, a specimen of wildlife literally crawls out of a ceramic object man has created to domesticate it: A tobacco jar, shaped like a cantankerous old toad clothed in a red velvet smoking jacket and puffing on a pipe, has been unhinged by a real frog who is about to jump out. The real frog, with a freshly killed bug at his lips, is rendered hazily, like a ghost—which leaves the slick tchotchke looking awfully ridiculous, its head cocked sideways while its very life leaves it.

Tamiami (1977) tells the same story: Live cockatoos lounge on a branch with feathers spread and beaks open behind two stolid bird statuettes staring straight ahead with drugged expressions. Lanyon’s detailed renditions of dime-store novelties are meant to lighten up her Cassandralike agenda, and they are sometimes very funny. But you can’t help but wonder: If the natural is so infinitely superior to the artificial, why does Lanyon bother? CP