While world leaders and climate activists unite at Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss matters of the environment at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), a stunning art installation by a pioneering eco-feminist artist will make another kind of statement on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
The artist is Mira Lehr who co-founded one of America’s first-ever artist co-ops for women artists in 1961, called Continuum, at a time when the field was dominated by men.
Six decades later, the 87-year-old – celebrated as “the godmother of Miami’s art scene” – continues to be relevant both in terms of the themes she takes up through her art, and the continued interest in her artworks.
The US premiere of the international Art With Me festival (November 26 – 28) has chosen to showcase Lehr’s monumental Mangrove Labyrinth sculptures for its three-day tribal gathering at the edge of the ocean at the historic Virginia Key Beach Park in Miami.
Festival-goers will come face to face with a new activation of the multidisciplinary artist’s creative vision in a dramatic setting right on the beach. The installation consists of six commanding sculptures, each constructed from twisted marine ropes that have been stiffened with steel rods, coated with resin and finished off with fire.
“I am thrilled that my Mangrove Labyrinth sculptures will be enjoyed by the festival-goers at Art With Me in the beautiful setting along the ocean’s edge,” says the New York-born Lehr, who graduated from Vassar College with a degree in art history in 1956 and has had over 300 solo and group exhibitions in her career.
“Mangroves are the great protectors of our planet’s ecosystem. They protect against flooding, holding back erosion and guarding the shoreline. Visitors to the Festival will feel like they are walking inside the root systems, and this emphasises their guardian status,” she adds.
Rising from the floor to tower eight feet above the ground, this thicket of abstracted mangroves is meant to enfold viewers and evoke what it feels like to be within the dense tangle of roots that characterise actual mangrove forests. The festival is pricing Lehr’s Mangrove Labyrinth at $275,000.
But the octogenarian is also making waves in other ways. One of the world’s leading art book publishers, Skira Editore, will be announcing a new 420-page international monograph, Mira Lehr: Arc of Nature, about Lehr’s six-decade career at the upcoming Art Basel Miami Beach (December 2 – 4).
The book’s cover features a detail of Lehr’s monumental ceiling installation titled Sacred Dreams, comprising 183 aerial sculptures. The installation was gifted to the Jewish Museum of Florida on Miami Beach during the pandemic closure by the collector Dr Robert Feldman, and is now on view as a permanent museum installation.
Further, the world-renowned Deering Estate has selected Lehr for a new solo exhibition, Mira Lehr: Regenerative Rhythms. In the early 1900s, industrialist, preservationist and environmentalist Charles Deering’s art collection was considered Miami’s most valuable treasure trove, featuring paintings by Goya, Murillo, El Greco, Degas, Winslow, Whistler, Sargent, Casas and more.
Curated by Melissa Diaz, Lehr’s show at Deering Estate features all new works created by her in 2021 that have never before been exhibited. The exhibition reflects Lehr’s ongoing dialogue with the power and unbounded quality of the natural world.
It invites the viewer to consider the patterns, textures and cyclical process of life, birth and regeneration. Layers and washes of pigments, burned Japanese paper and handwritten text create a multidimensional surface through which to enter Lehr’s inner worlds.
Emerging from the Field of Reeds is the foreseeing title of one of Lehr’s new paintings in this exhibition. She created the work during the pandemic, and the title came to her months after it was painted. The field of reeds refers to the ancient Egyptian vision of the afterlife, a paradise mirror-image of one’s life on earth.
Egypt’s actual fields of reeds, in the Delta valley, were more like infernos. Reed workers lived a hard life and were chronically affected by diseases. The painting represents a singular departure for Lehr – she never painted anything of the kind before or after. This vision came to her only once.
“These new works by Mira Lehr, never exhibited before, resonate in our post-quarantine pandemic period prodding us to consider our relationship with nature,” says Diaz.
Pandora’s Blossoms is another large-scale painting by Lehr that is exquisitely allowed expansive wall space in this show, peering down at visitors in the Deering Estate’s historic Great Hall.
“Through her six decades long commitment to the growth of the Miami art community, Lehr has become an icon of feminist and environmental art. The urgency of a single, vertical drip in Lehr’s paintings speaks to the intensity with which we face ourselves in this Covid world,” adds Diaz.
Pandora’s Blossoms is also the subject of one of the essays in the Skira Editore monograph, penned by the New York Times writer Joseph B Treaster. He is drawn to the fact that Lehr had never created a work quite like this. His curiosity is piqued by the way Lehr “harmonised the soft, rich colours with her explosive touches” of ignited gunpowder and burned fuses, alongside singed Japanese paper.
Diaz further explains Lehr’s work: “Pandora is not a femme fatale responsible for the earth’s destruction, but rather a Mother Nature figure that brings forth new life out of death and decay. Instead of releasing the ills of humanity, the blossoms can be read as a renewed sense of harmony and life emerging from the cinders. The effect evokes the birth of something new from the ashes of destruction.”