Flowers have been part of our lives for millennia, and today they serve, as gifts and as arrangements installed in social spaces, as reminders of life and mortality. Flowers come particularly into play in our weddings and our funeral rites, betokening both the celebration of life and the recognition of death. They also happen to be extremely beautiful efflorescences as simple products of nature. In the show curated by Michele Mack and gallerist Elga Wimmer, attention is paid to the flower in all possible art genres–in prints, photographs, paintings, and sculptures. The variety of imagery could not be broader, so that the viewer’s experience must inadvertently follow the many kinds of flowers to see, and, in addition, the many ways in which the images were made. The show, in both its impressive variety and its achievement as a (limited) botanical guide, makes it clear that nature still serves as a template for imaginative form, as well as offering a useful and fecund subject matter for many kinds of artists over time. Thus the show is predicated on a subject matter that is historical, regularly beautiful, and socially demonstrative by virtue of the mostly modernist language used by the artists. The exhibition’s many offerings–there are eighteen artists participating–indicate that the flower has not lost much importance at all as a visual trope.
Jonathan Singer’s Star of Madagascar (2008) is a large black-and-white photograph of an exquisite white orchid against a black background. Three of the orchids are seen, two of them in bright light and in the foreground, and one in dimmed light, behind the others and off to the left. Singer is known for such photographs; he is the only artist whose contemporary work exists in the holdings of the Smithsonian. This particular image is gorgeous like its subject; it effects an outlook that is botanical but also culturally dramatic. Scott Kilgour’s Blue Riviera (2016) is a beautiful screen-print embellished with glitter. Twenty-four inches square, the composition offers four blue roses, whose contours are outlined in black. It is hard with an image like this not to acknowledge the pop art of Warhol; his screen-prints of flowers are ubiquitous and beautiful, if also utterly literal (indeed, his early work here anchors the show). Alex Katz’s 2017 silkscreen print, entitled Wildflowers, collects tall-stalked blooms with red, yellow, and blue crowns; much of the image is taken up with a white background, which gives emphasis to the yellow-green stems, the differently hued crowns, and the green leaves that are elaborated across the compositional field. It is a remarkably youthful work of art; we remember, with something close to amazement, that the artist is a nonagenarian.
In Carlos Rolon/Dzine’s ink-on-paper image, called Gild the Lily II (2017), a profusion of exquisitely detailed and colored blossoms overtakes a brown background. Drenched in color, the flowers enact what amounts to a ritual presentation of beauty. This writer, not a botanist expert in any way, was nonetheless overwhelmed by the imagistic specificity of the broad array of blossoms, whose shapes and hues present an unusual variety of natural effects. One senses that the collective arrangement of the blooms is entirely artificial, even as we admire the colorations of the petal shapes, which in no way are created by man. The density of the flowers’ arrangement results in a nearly claustrophobic beauty on the page. Heide Hatry’s photo, called Orbes aridi coporum concharum, praecordiae pisciumI (2010), offers a photograph of a flower with a center consisting of pinkish nodules, surrounded by very dark red leaves, which are then surrounded further by a halo of dark green blades of grass. The image is disconcerting in the suggestiveness of its eroticism; one wonders if she is looking at a biologically marginal, mutated sexual organ. Such a reading is surely far-fetched, but we remember that nature is, in fact, capable of images we would understand, at least partially, as highly erotic. Sheva Fruitman’s Leaf (2004) is exactly that: a photograph of a leaf superimposed on an ancient manuscript page, on which Arabic writing is written. Very beautiful, and because of the Arabic language, exotic to the Western viewer who does not know the meaning of the words, Leaf shows us how visual beauty can be established within a matrix of foreign imagery or language. Its exoticism–this word is not completely accurate–results in a memorable picture.
Inma Barrero’s sculpture, Cages (2015), is made of porcelain shards contained by steel wire. The piece hangs from the ceiling; one of the three sculptures in the show. Seen from a distance, Cages might be a gathering of white flowers held within a black net of thread. Closer up though, the materials feel a bit menacing, slightly harsh. Donald Sultan’s Black Lantern Flowers (2013), constructed from aluminum and given a black powder coating, presents a complicated puzzle-like series of forms. The two black flowers have rounded edges and intricate stem imagery, while their black color introduces a surreal vision of natural efflorescence. Andy Warhol’s Daisy (1971) is a Xograph of a daisy, the simplest of blooms. White petals surround a yellow circle, which is itself an aura for the flower’s pebbled center. As an early example of Warhol’s work, the image can be considered interesting, although it is hard to say this with complete belief, given the literalism of the image. (Warhol introduced a literalized imagery early on in his career, and such an outlook is more problematic than it seems. Literalization is exactly that: the offering of an image as it is, unchanged. When an object or image is presented unchanged, it results necessarily in a circumscribed view of things. Much political art today has chosen to work literally, more than likely because the artist wants to make sure that the politics being adumbrated are not misunderstood. But Warhol’s image, like so much of his work, possesses a deliberate blandness that feels deliberately limited manner of imagining. This limitation, while new in Warhol’s hands, now feels inadequate to a creative view of things.)
It is fitting to end this review with a measured examination of Warhol’s image. He did indeed regularly introduce flowers into his oeuvre, and his influence is felt throughout this very good show. Other well-known artists have devoted themselves to flower imagery; Mondrian also painted flowers a lot, mostly to pay the bills. It is fair to comment that Mondrian’s flower works have a truly painterly–and by extension metaphorical– existence that much flower imagery today lacks. The works in this show occur on the margins of metaphor or adopt a modernist style in which a conscious imagistic rejection of verisimilitude offsets the truthfulness occurring in many of the works. In other words, the image is undermined by the consequences of its poetic effects. This is no one’s fault, although it is likely that the efforts seen in this comprehensive show may not always, or necessarily, transform the awareness of its audience. It can be argued–argued well–that contemporary fine art’s job is to expose our experience of flowers to their essence, within a language of consciously adopted modernity. Many of the images discussed here do exactly that–in ways that defend the integral beauty of flowers! No matter what we think of the styles we encounter, it is clear that the artists in the exhibition are still taken with the inherent comeliness of flowers, whose visual delicacy provides artists with an imagery their viewers also willingly succumb to. Thus, as always, nature never truly succumbs to an esthetic interpretation.
“BLOOM/WILT/BLOOM” at Elga Wimmer PCC
April 12 – May 5, 2018
526 W 26th St #310, New York,
NY 10001, USA