1.5 / Review

Lapidary Terrarium

By Laura Cassidy December 16, 2009

Thumbnail: Array, 2009; mixed media, 10 x 5 in. each. Courtesy of the Artist and Michael Rosenthal Gallery, San Francisco.

The ubiquitous white-walled art gallery with its transparent storefront windows is readily compared to the glass terrariums of the nineteenth century. A gallery cultivates visual arts culture, whereas a terrarium cultivates plant and animal life; both captivate the observing gaze of collectors. 

In her first solo show at the Michael Rosenthal Gallery, "Lapidary Terrarium," Mary Conrad is both collector and artist. She assembles an intricate gallery environment in which two sheets of plastic, attached at distant points on the ceiling, drape downwards to create towering conical forms. One tower glows with lavender light and echoes the tonal surface of a nearby painting titled, Violet Float (2009).

In the painting, Conrad depicts an orange traffic cone floating over a flat violet background. She covers all but a few edges of this cone with a whitewash, subduing the brightness of its plastic skin. The opacity of this painting echoes back to the three-dimensional towers hanging in the center of the room. Together, these repetitious cones are icons for construction, particularly the construction of language.

The assemblage that Conrad features in the center of the gallery pairs the lavender-lit tower of plastic with a large

Violet Float, 2009; acrylic and gouache on canvas; 72 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Michael Rosenthal Gallery, San Francisco.


Lapidary Terrarium, 2009; mixed-media installation; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Michael Rosenthal Gallery, San Francisco.

skeletal structure made of salvaged wood, its long spine resting on a green bed of Astroturf. This is the Lapidary Terrarium from which the show’s title derives. This assemblage is reminiscent of Mark Dion's Neukom Vivarium permanently installed in Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park. However, Conrad's work does not convey the vitality of Dion's hemlock tree, which is embedded in soil with a constant source of water, air, and humidity. Instead, her abstract assemblage is bareboned. As the title suggests, it is living, but only in relation to its contrived and isolated environment.

As Conrad elaborates on the concept of the lapidary terrarium, she moves further and further away from representations of nature. The traffic cone itself is already an abstraction, a symbol designed to alert people to road work, hazards, or danger. Conrad appropriates this familiar symbol into her own system of meaning with a proliferating sequence of conical forms.

The traffic cone reappears around the gallery as a charcoal line drawing, as a rolled piece of paper sutured with embroidery thread, and as a radiant orange figure floating against a backdrop of distressed silver leaf. In this ongoing series, Conrad reveals how signs and symbols codify and perhaps obscure the physical world.

There are three small-scale electric works that encapsulate this concept: Array, Drastic Plastic, and Sunrise Sunset. These neon bricks are like glowing hieroglyphs: symbols from a civilization steeped in technology, whose efforts to build information systems and infrastructures devalue the material means by which they achieve their ends.

The strength of Conrad's carefully plotted contemporary terrarium is its artificial isolation. I anticipate her proliferating sequence of traffic cones and skeletal fragments will morph into another signifying project. Conrad's "Terrarium" succeeds in demonstrating that no system is completely closed, and today, the systems in which we cultivate visual arts culture are increasingly permeable.

"Lapidary Terrarium" is on view at Michael Rosenthal Gallery in San Francisco through December 19, 2009.


Laura Cassidy is a writer and critic based in San Francisco. She earned her BA from the University of Puget Sound in 2005 and her MA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2009. Theoretical models from science and technology studies inform her ongoing engagement with the dynamic living systems and communities that sustain our world.

Comments ShowHide