It sometimes seems as though Lenka Konopasek can do anything. Using only plain paper as her medium, she meticulously models a 21st-century American suburb, spread across a tabletop like an architect’s dream. Stripped of distraction and camouflage and reduced to a bleached-white, monochromatic array, the poverty and redundancy of design concepts become clearly visible. Economic stratification and the owners’ blunted aspirations show up in the similarity of their achievements, like the number of cars each garage can hold. But then, as if this was too easy, she brings in a tornado that, but for being made of nylon monofilament and more paper, could have escaped Dorothy’s Kansas, and sets it to work ripping up the town. Fragments whirl upwards in spirals, first over roofs that may soon follow, then over the heads of the audience and into the gallery’s lighting tracks.
It’s a tour-de-force, but one most viewers will remain outside of, viewing from the perspective of a god . . . or a meteorologist. That’s partly the limit of sculpture as a medium, but it’s also an evident preference of the artist’s. There’s a sense that she appreciates the accomplishments of the builders, which is not the same as admiring them, but looking up at the tornado as it easily dismantles all in its path, it’s easy to see how much more she loves the power of Nature.
For most of her career, Lenka Konopasek has been engaged in a romance with disaster. It’s something Europeans are much better at, more honest and candid about, than Americans. Our Western myth is about the solitary and rootless lives of cowboys, while in her rodeo paintings, Konopasek, who was born and raised in the Czech Republic, focuses on the precise point where the hero’s path to victory inevitably falters, and he begins to fall off his mount. Yet like the giant, deep-sea rigs that brave storms, explosions, and fire at sea in pursuit of oil, or like cities built, courageously or foolishly, in the path of hurricanes, in her art the sheer scale and gorgeous atmospherics—from billowing clouds of smoke to blowing sand and flying dust—and vast perspectives seen from soaring points of view make these events compelling, but keep them at a distance.
There’s got to be a reason why an artist of such consummate skill chooses to stop at mere disaster, rather than proceed to utter destruction. She evidently doesn’t see life as hopeless, nor is she interested in presenting it so, nor making the world look intrinsically hostile. The evidence argues she just wants to portray nature, with its irresistible power, in a way that includes — and balances — the light and the dark. So it is that her every installation creates, and every painting depicts, a space not unlike a stage setting, in or on which humanity, seen properly as smaller and more vulnerable than we like to see ourselves, encounters the vast, and shockingly indifferent, natural world.
In the past, the ambivalence of nature has appeared most clearly in her public commissions. In “Secret Dwellings,” three Cottonwood Park sculptures, nature both threatens and protects the charming homes. Her huge, yet rusty-looking clock at the TRAX station in Old Greek Town seems to know that time isn’t really the implacable enemy it sometimes feels like. After all, time is where we spend our entire lives, for good or bad, and it’s running out of time, not time itself, that’s the more serious problem.
That said, in the last two or three years she’s found a new way of balancing the comfort and threat experienced in venturing into nature. Once again it involves paper, a material Konopasek has taken outright possession of and transforms as completely, and seemingly as effortlessly, as paint or clay. The dozen mixed-media pieces in Darker Territory aren’t all dark in color, though most are predominantly black, but they beckon the viewer to enter a dark emotional or psychic space—to come away from the light, into thickets of light-absorbing, space-filling fibers reminiscent of the heavy fur of some black beast, or jungle foliage within which dwell things unknown.
They all hang on the wall, and after noticing that in place of a painted representation, each extends the three-dimensional presence of a variously textured structure — texture being something scientists have begun to suspect may be more fundamental to our senses than color — it’s worthwhile to carefully observe how each is attached. “Undergrowth,” “Broken Landscape,” and “Growth 1” form simple rectangles, as though what we see might be just arbitrarily selected samples. “Caged” protrudes from the wall, containing the interior space its title implies. Like “Wedge,” it conceals its connection to the wall. “Pelt,” “Shield,” and especially “Dark Territory,” which suggests a bat’s wings, are pierced by grommets they hang from, emphasizing their title shapes.
The real point of each, however, lies in the variety of blade-like and more complex shapes that make up their fur or foliage. In “Undergrowth,” the underside of each sliver contrasts with the top color, and just enough of them are turned up to suggest variegation, and with it the slightly ominous feeling that a plant or animal has found a survival advantage in camouflage colors. A further sense of familiar coloration appears in “Growth 1,” where white paper, painted black, has been torn to shape not cleanly, but so that white borders are left around the perimeter of each shape. Another form of variation stems from the lighting, which reflects so strongly off some shapes, like in “Pelt,” that they appear white among their darker surroundings.
As is typical with Konopasek, the varieties of shapes and their arrangements within a piece seem endlessly inventive. Short blades alternate with long strands in “Target.” In an unmistakable outgrowth of her architectural structures, the most complex bouquets erupt in square and round tubes that emerge, from what might be undergrowth, at odd angles. In “Spill,” they echo and contrast with the X-shaped background, while in “Memory-Dark Heart” the background roils and twists like a serpent, forming shapes akin to dimension-defying Moebius bands. Apparently no opportunity has been passed up; the shadows cast on the walls by these pieces alone are worth the price of admission.
Just as they differ in looks and suggested associations, so these works evoke a variety of responses. While standing before them, some generate a sensuous desire to run fingers and whole hands through the sheaves, even as caution argues that such blade-like shapes, no matter how soft they look, can prove surprisingly sharp. And who knows what lurks in there? Others mix together stronger feelings than caution, like assault or even revulsion. But make no mistake: the sleekest fur can cover a wild beast, while the most threatening facade can defend mere innocence and vulnerability. Both sides of any natural encounter may threaten each other. What’s dark about the territory is not just the risk it poses to trespassers, but the danger they bring to it, and sometimes to themselves.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.