February 8 - May 5, 1990
Organized by Susan Hoeltzel and
Peter Muscato photo
For each of the artists in this exhibition, nature is a point of departure.
Botanical structures, images of plants, or fragments of the plants themselves
are the focus of works in a wide variety of media and styles. Some of
the artists sketch from nature carefully observing and describing botanical
specimens and translating those images into the fictional/metaphorical
representations of all art. Others begin with those objective forms of
nature and freely invent, allowing the form to evolve in the materials,
the imagination, and the process of making the work of art. There are
also those artists whose plant forms are related to mediated imagessecondary
images of nature such as plants envisioned by earlier artists or found
in the structural diagrams of scientific journals. Plants serve as the
medium as well as the subject in the work of several of the artists. Flowers,
twigs, leaves, and ferns are the materials from which the art is made.
Plants also function consciously and unconsciously as symbols, layering
the image with a reservoir of meaning. This can range from using plants
to represent the dynamism of growth to providing a vehicle for eroticism.
Plants are sometimes imbued with religious or mystical significance, and
their medicinal properties suggest healing. They recall the paradise of
Eden as well as playing a role in the Fall and Expulsion. Plants are symbols
of beauty and love, and the brevity of their blooms is a reminder of the
transience of life.Terry Winters' plants have their sources in microbiology.
These are not the familiar plants we experience in daily life, but are
those seen through microscopes and conceptually conceived through the
diagrams, graphs, and charts of science. Winters early work was closely
connected to Minimalism. By the early 1980s he had begun to wed the concerns
of abstraction with a subject matterthe microstructure of plants,
animals, and minerals. Initially, he explored the substructure of his
paint, which he mixed himself using ground pigments and oil. Drawing upon
a collection of scientific illustration, Winters began his exploration
of plant imagery. These images, which are poetic rather than literal,
evolve and develop in the process of painting. They provide a subject
matter through which Winters investigates abstraction.
Winters' microscopic forms appear to hover at the surface of the canvas. His paints are heavily textured and often brushwork under the surface provides a counterpoint to the imagery. While Winters rarely mixes his own paints now, he adds thinners and thickening agents to commercial paints, producing a range of surface textures. In Marginalia, a lithograph, the central form is a schematic flower shape surrounded by cell masses and molecular diagrams. The same shape appears again in the impastoed paint surface of Station.
Ed Albers also explores the underlying structure of plants in his paintings.
Albers' surreal-looking botanic forms evolve through a study of microbiologyboth
from reproductions as well as from direct observation under the microscope.
These meticulously rendered forms are largely fictional. While based on
real plant forms they are recombined or embellished from the imagination.
In his current work, Albers uses the diptych as a compositional device. A rectangular canvas on the right, depicting the plant form, is paired with a larger square panel on the left, containing a barely visible imprint. Albers refers to these imprints as "memory forms" which he describes as a fossilized, primordial schema bearing the organism's genetic code. It is structurally related to the form on the right panel. The shape looks something like a cross-section of the plant. It is not an observed form but one Albers freely intuits. In Ramosus Spira-Culum, the microscopic form looks monumental. Its disintegrating stem reveals an almost architectural structure. Its "memory form" is recorded on the canvas to the left. Albers has been strongly influenced by Karl Blossfeldt's photographic studies of plants, which were published in the 1920s. He has also been influenced by the theories of Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch scientist who first saw bacteria under the microscope.
Alexis Rockman explores the dark side of the natural order. Here seduction
and death coexist in an implied narrative. In Dangerous Liaisons, pitcher
plants emit noxious vapors and entice their prey in a miasmal swamp. A
cutaway view of one of the plants reveals a life-and- death struggle between
a frog and a spider in its interior, both trapped inside the plant, both
doomed. Vignettes of nature are scattered throughout the painting. A flowering
succulent grows nearby, attracting bees that swarm and pollinate. Below,
tadpoles swim in a murky, seminal stream. Like the allegorical images
of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, there is the suggestion of a moral
tale in Rockman's paintingsthese primordial gardens are far from
Rockman's scenes are painted in rich, lustrous colors with transparent, dripping glazes. The paint surface has the luminous quality of traditional oils. These true-to-nature images are not studied from plants but are drawn from memorymemory of magazine illustrations' children's books, and botanical textbooksnature from secondary sources. Compositional devices suggest the dioramas of The Museum of Natural History, where Rockman has also studied the natural world.
Political and social issues have played a major role in the work of Mike Glier. His interest in plants as a subject for painting began in 1982. After seeing an uprooted tree that had been bulldozed in the construction of a real estate development, he made a painting of the stump. Plant imagery in the context of Glier's work carries an acknowledgement of the role flora play in the ecological balance of nature. The plant kingdom is portrayed in powerful, emotionally-charged images. Glier's plants are not passive; there is a consciousness ascribed to them and at times they are shown to be capable of retribution. In Untitled (Seventh Milkweed), large looming plants cluster together in gangs. Anthropomorphized, their curled leaves are like intense eyes glaring at the viewer. In Fourth Milkweed, the plants display their extraordinary beauty and languish, indifferent to the human observer. Glier's drawings are rendered in charcoal, chalk, and conte crayon, and use mud as a fixative and a ground. These seemingly invented plants are studied from nature.
Nelson's imagery is highly romanticized and clearly refers to a serenity
and beauty found in earlier depictions of nature. Working with oil paint
and wax on a wooden panel, she gradually builds separate layers of each
on the surface. The wax is distressed with heat and abrasion. More oil
paint is added and stains the roughened surface. This technique is responsible
for the luminous quality of the paint surface and gives the work a patina
suggesting age. The work is small, inviting close inspection and creating
an intimate relationship with the viewer.
Michelle Stuart's work of the last two decades has involved nature in a very literal and physical way-from her early earth rubbings to her current work that incorporates flowers, leaves, and ferns. The nine 12" x 12" panels in our exhibition are from a series entitled Brookings Herbarium. A herbarium is a collection of dried plant specimens which are preserved and studied. Brookings refers to the Oregon town where Stuart lives part of the year. In these works, parts of plants are pressed into layers of encaustic on wooden panels. Encaustics are a traditional method in which hot wax and pigment are mixed. (This method is unlike the wax and oil technique used by Joan Nelson, in which the two media are built up in separate layers.) Other times, the plants are pressed into the surface and removed, leaving a fossil-like imprint. Collaged elements scraps of canvas or paperare sometimes added. The process of making the painting is visible on the surface of the work. Muted greens, grays, browns, and black give the work a gentleness reminiscent of Victorian pressed flowers. The layering of the paint and the manipulation of the collaged plants give the sense of looking at archaeological strata or the painted walls of a demolished building
Francisco Alvarado-Juarez's mixed media work The First Oryx and Caribou: Trophy #3, includes actual plants in an implied narrative of the hunter and the hunted. Slabs of cross-sectioned trees with projecting branches, thrust forward like animal antlers in gameroom trophies. These three-dimensional elements read as animals as well as trees. Sheets with collaged bits of torn paper and shredded photographs from books on hunting are arranged in a circular pattern. Quick, sketchy notations on the painted papers suggest dense foliage and conceal the hunters and their prey. The ground on which the fragments are arranged is the wall itself, including the negative spaces of the wall in the composition. These bare branches and torn paper resembling fallen leaves, suggest autumn, the hunting season.
Meg Webster's Box for the Propagation of Earthworms in Their Consumption of Organic Waste Material, is a small sculptural work which has its roots in minimal art as well as earthworks of the '60s and '70s. It, too, uses plants to create the work; leaves, dirt, water, insects, and earthworms are placed in a redwood box that sits in a bronze tray. Webster's work confronts the viewer with a vision of nature that is radically real. This miniature ecosystem is propelled by time and the natural order. Leaves decay and become a part of the soil. Earthworms grow, reproduce, and die. The soil is enriched and aerated. Water condenses and evaporates. Nature, decontextualized by the Gallery, provides a subject, the material, and the source of its concert and production. Bracketed out of an immediate experience of nature, Webster's work objectifies natural process.
Robert Mapplethorpe captures plants in a moment of perfection.
His photographs of flowerssingly or in clusterspresent flawless
form analyzed in theatrical light and shadow. Mapplethorpe photographed
flowers almost constantly from the time he began to work with a camera.
He once explained that flowers provided a subject for learning about photography
that did not impose on people to sit.
Mapplethorpe first received attention for photographing
sexually explicit subjects in the mid 70s. Many of the flower photographs
are implicitly connected and eroticism is a subtext. These flowers become
surrogate objects of desire and metaphors for human anatomy. Orchid
is a greatly enlarged closeup view. Mapplethorpe may or may not have
known that the word orchid is rooted in the Greek, meaning "testicle."
Mapplethorpe's flowers are studied with a cool, analytical gaze. At close
range, they sometimes take on a strangeness in which even the familiar
seems odd. Like other Mapplethorpe subjects, Orchid has the ability
to both attract and repel.
There is a hint of romanticism and an aura of the past in the work of Doug and Mike Starn; yet simultaneously, the work aggressively reconstructs the traditional conventions of photography. Unlike most contemporary photographs, their work has an organic, handmade look. The Starn Twins rip, fold and score photographic paper, scratch negatives, and patch fragments of printed photographs together with Scotch tape, sometimes splashing chemicals on the photographic paper to create painterly blotches. Aspects of the process resemble painting, drawing, and collage. Rather than concealing the darkroom technique in a glossy print, the Starns expose each step of the process. The resulting image has a faceted, almost cubist look to it.
In the darkroom, various-sized fragments of photosensitive
papers are arranged on a vertical board. Using an enlarger the Starns
project a negative onto the papers to make a very large photograph. (Initially,
this method was used because it allowed the Starns to increase the size
of the work.) Black tape at the perimeter defines the format. With the
enlarger positioned horizontally the negative is exposed onto the light-sensitive
papers. The sheets are individually developed and then retaped in the
final piece. Parts of other photographs may be collaged into the compositions
at this point. Toning of the prints adds the appearance of age. In Large
Fern, the photographic papers have been arranged on a vertical/horizon/ad
axis. Parts of the image have been realigned in the final taping, emphasizing
the faceting of the image. The finished photograph is an aggregate rather
than a single-paper print. While dependent on a master negative, each
finished work is one of a kind.
Barbara Ess' photographs have an almost surreal quality
about them. Using a simple pinhole camera, they combine high technology
with one of the most primitive photographic techniques. A pinhole camera
requires a simple box with a small hole for light to enter the box instead
of a lens and photographic filmblack and white in this instance.
This technique requires long exposuresfrom two to twelve secondsand
produces a soft blurred image. Ess's black and white images are then processed
as a color photograph, producing a monochromatic C Print. The pinhole
technique results in a strong light at the center of the photograph and
a dark circle around the edge. In Untitled, this dark edge is apparent
on two sides of the photograph. Dust and grit picked up on the film become
a part of the finished work.
The world is not truly stilled in the these photographs. Even inanimate objects seem to move. The shadowy darkness at the edge of the frame gives an uneasiness to the sceneas if something awful has just happened outside of the picture. The odd angle from which the photograph has been taken, "a snake's eye view" as the artist describes this perspective, adds to the uneasiness. In Untitled a harmless bush has been transformed into a setting for an inferred event and narrative.
Ann Sperry's welded steel plant forms are closely connected to the concept of growth. She uses scrap metal, often from farm implements. In the Garden Vl is based on a primitive plant whose simple segmented forms grow something like a bamboo. Each link appears to push and propel the next. Designed as a site-specific sculpture, the forma pod structure with vine-like tendrils-restates the dynamism of the building itself: a Marcel Breuer design from the early sixties. The column that the sculpture surrounds is one of six tree-like, poured concrete columns that support the roof of the building. Sperry's forms seem to thrust through the floor and penetrate the column. The sculpture is rubbed with metallic powders mixed with a medium to keep steel from rusting. This glaze gives the work a lustrous green surface and brings it to life.
Works in the Exhibition