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Review: Peggy Macnamara/Elmhurst Art Museum

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The natural world is so full of wonders it’s a wonder that more artists don’t become obsessed by it. There’s no better place to feed that obsession than the Field Museum of Natural History, where Peggy Macnamara spent a decade sketching exhibits before she was eventually taken on as artist-in-residence, helping to create some of the visual material associated with the displays. Her current exhibition at the Elmhurst Art Museum samples some of her work, as well as bringing over some of the biological specimens, eggs, nests and such, that have inspired it. She has developed a system of watercolor painting that builds up dozens of layers of complementary and variant colors to create a rich and glowing pattern that’s cheerful and engaging as it narrates the stories of natural cycles—but not completely satisfying. Macnamara is more of a colorist than a draftsman. The accuracy that she seeks in line is related more to subject than to pictorial space. So close up, much of the work feels awkward, and with some subjects, dramatically disappointing. As with the mighty eagle, that metaphoric predator so beloved by warlords and business tycoons around the world, which she has rendered more like a frumpy denizen of the barnyard. On the other hand, her life-size renditions of the sand stork are as elegant and gorgeous as beautifully dressed women at a cocktail party. So, like every other artist, some subjects resonate much better with her than others. Her mission as a wildlife illustrator is more educational than aesthetic. There’s no doubt that curious people of all ages can learn a lot about the natural world from her work, but only occasionally does she make something that, like the birds and insects depicted on historic Japanese screens, might serve for the quiet contemplation of the intensity and elegance of life. (Chris Miller)

Through June 1 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 South Cottage Hill, Elmhurst

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