Seedy side of life: Gastinger provides graphic details

Lara Call Gastinger, "Taxodium Distichum."
Lara Call Gastinger, "Taxodium Distichum."

The beauty and the tragedy of this time of year is how ephemeral the world seems. One minute a tree dazzles with red and orange leaves; the next, a gust of wind leaves its limbs bare. And within days, those brilliant leaves sent sailing turn brown and crumble to dust. Simultaneously, a hidden fertility is at work, as acorns fall and dried husks split and release their spores.

This intertwining dance of life and death is what makes Lara Call Gastinger's current exhibit at Angelo, "Textural Studies," so compelling. Internationally recognized for her botanical illustrations (she was a gold-medal winner at London's Royal Horticultural Show), Gastinger takes straightforward scientific representation and quietly infuses it with drama, tapping into viewers' emotional responses.

The 11 watercolors on display are the opposite of splashy. For this show, Gastinger has all but opted out of color, sticking with sepia variations that emphasize the desiccated state of many of her subjects. This monochromatic approach has the additional benefit of allowing viewers to appreciate the exquisite precision of Gastinger's hand without being distracted by pretty colors.

Which is not to say Gastinger's illustrations aren't pretty–- in fact, they're achingly gorgeous. Following standard scientific practice, Gastinger sometimes illustrates a single plant and at other times creates arrangements to show different aspects of a species. Through her compositional choices, she prods and nudges viewers' visceral reactions.

For instance, in "Leaves and seed," Gastinger offers a vertical trio, with a pitted but still recognizable maple leaf fanning downward at the bottom, its filigreed remains evoking a stained-glass window. In the center, a seed appears encaged within a delicate neural network, and at the top, a barely-there skeletal fragment of a leaf induces feelings of sorrow, with only a few fragile, lacy veins left clinging to its stem. The overall effect is agonizingly tender.

Similarly, Gastinger suggests a subtle eroticism in "Castanea mollissima (Chinese chestnut)," in which she shows a furry open husk at the top, smooth chestnuts at the bottom, and a glimpse of a chestnut inside its furred husk in the center. Always, Gastinger is exacting in her technique, her steady hand conveying even the tiniest physical details. Her control and ultra-fine lines call to mind the single-haired brushes favored by Persian miniaturists.

With wondrous skill, Gastinger has preserved the theatrical transience of the natural world, allowing viewers to drink in its poignancy unbound by time.

Lara Call Gastinger's exhibit, "Textural Studies," is on view through December at Angelo, 220 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 971-9256