Botanica:
The Secret Life
of Plants

February 8 - May 5, 1990

Organized by Susan Hoeltzel and
Nina Castelli Sundell


Peter Muscato photo
About the Artists

 

 

Introduction

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 images—secondary 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 matter—the 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.

 

Terry Winters, Untitled, 1984

 

Ed Albers also explores the underlying structure of plants in his paintings. Albers' surreal-looking botanic forms evolve through a study of microbiology—both 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.

 

Michael Glier, Untitled (Seventh Milkweed), 1987


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 paintings—these primordial gardens are far from innocent.

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 memory—memory of magazine illustrations' children's books, and botanical textbooks—nature from secondary sources. Compositional devices suggest the dioramas of The Museum of Natural History, where Rockman has also studied the natural world.


Alexis Rockman, Dangerous Liasons, 1989


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.


Like many of the artists, Joan Nelson uses reproduced images as a source. In this instance, nature is mediated by the history of art. Modeled on images of plants which come from earlier painters, her works are based on details—cropped and reinvented—from reproductions of paintings. Although these paintings have beginnings in the works of other painters, this is only a starting point and the final image is always different from its source. Nelson has sought her imagery in the work of many artists, including Bellini Raphael, Velásquez, and Leonardo da Vinci. Both Untitled (# 186) and Untitled (#201) look like fragments from a Renaissance landscape. Their sources are to be found in the work of painters George Stubbs and Albrecht Altdorfer, respectively.


Roberto Juarez, Cut Flowers, 1989


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.


Plants in the work of Joe Andoe offer a wistful works Untitled (Violet) and Untitled (Tulip) a single vulnerable flower hangs in suspension above a dark void. The flower presents a ghostly image. It is subtractive, created by scraping away paint to reveal the undercoat rather than by the direct application of paint. Spotlighted with a baroque lighting, the flower stands alone and all else falls into darkness. Like the shadows which surround the figures of Rembrandt, this absence of light is pure paint—dark and oily as butter. A line across the bottom of some compositions variously implies a horizon, a landscape, a context, and a scale for this lone botanical specimen which emblematically presides over the earth. Vertically down the side of one composition single letters in cursive script spell out the artist's name. In the other work his name is compactly written under the plant. The signature is a design element in all of Andoe's current work.

 

Francisco Alvarado-Juárez, The First Oryx and Caribou: Trophy #3, 1988




Roberto Juarez's plants are placed and arranged with a keen interest in the formal elements. In his mixed media work, Cut Flowers, botanical drawings are organized into a grid of varying-sized rectangles, giving the work a collaged appearance. Two large plants dominate the composition. Drawn in charcoal, the line is expressive and gestural. The ground on which they have been placed is heavily textured with layers of acrylic paint, dirt, and paper towels. An incised vine-like line cuts through the rectangles. Traces of the paper towel can be seen through the paint—these are the decorator type with floral borders. Transparent washes pool and run in response to the wrinkles and lumps of the understructure. The colors—black, grays, and beiges—are a reminder of the earth in which these plants germinate and grow.

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 paper—are 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 flowers—singly or in clusters—present 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 film—black and white in this instance. This technique requires long exposures—from two to twelve seconds—and 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 scene—as 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 form—a 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.



Susan Hoeltzel

 

Works in the Exhibition

 

ED ALBERS
Extirpo, 1989
oil tempera, gel and varnish on canvas
36 x 56 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


ED ALBERS
Ramosus Spira-Culum 1989
oil, tempera, gel and varnish on canvas
36 x 56 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


FRANCISCO ALVARADO-JUAREZ
The First Oryx and Caribou: Trophy # 3,
1988
acrylic and collage on paper with wood slabs
and branches 110 1/2 x 149 x 23 inches
Collection of the artist


JOE ANDOE
Untitled (Tulip), 1989
oil on linen
50 x 60 inches
Courtesy BlumHelman Gallery, New York


JOE ANDOE
Untitled (Violet), 1989
oil on linen
50 x 60 inches
Private Collection


BARBARA ESS
Untitled, 1989
monochrome color photograph
50 x 96 inches
Courtesy Curt Marcus Gallery, New York


MICHAEL GLER
Untitled (Seventh Milkweed), 1987
charcoal, conte crayon, and gesso on paper
60 3/4 x 44 1/2 inches
Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York


MICHAEL GLIER
Fourth Milkweed, 1986
charcoal, conte crayon, and gesso on paper
62 x 45 inches
Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York


ROBERTO JUAREZ
Cut Flowers, 1989
mixed media on linen
48 x 84 inches
Collection of Proskauer, Rose, Goetz
& Mendelsohn


ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
Tulips, 1977
gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches
Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York


ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
Orchid, 1988
gelatin silver print
24 x 20 inches
Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York


JOAN NELSON
Untitled (#201), 1988
oil and wax on wood
12 x 12 inches
Collection of the artist;
Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York
JOAN NELSON
Untitled (#186), 1988
Oil and wax on wood
21x16
Collection of Edward R. Downe, Jr., New York


ALEXIS ROCKMAN
Dangerous Liaisons, 1989
oil on canvas
100 x 60 inches
Courtesy Jay Gorney Modern Art, New York

ANN SPERRY
In The Garden Vl, 1990
welded and painted steel
116 1/2x72 1/2x68
Lent by the artist

     

DOUG AND MIKE STARN
Large Fern, 1988
silver print tape wood
94 x 88 inches
Courtesy of Barbara Guggenheim Associates,
New York


MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium#30, 1988
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium, #87, 1989
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium #27, 1988
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium, #12, 1988
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York

MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium, #71, 1989
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium, #95, 1989
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York

MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium #40, 1988
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York

MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium #39, 1988
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


MICHELLE STUART
Brookings Herbarium #85, 1989
encaustic, pigment and plants
12 x 12 inches
Courtesy Fawbush Gallery, New York


MEG WEBSTER
Box for the Propagation of Earthworms in
Their Consumption of Organic Waste Material,
1989
redwood, bronze, soil, earthworms, and leaves
39 x 23 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches
Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York


TERRY WINTERS
Marginalia, 1988
lithograph
48 x 31 3/4
Lent by The Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York: purchased with funds from the Print Committee


TERRY WINTERS
Untitled, 1984
oil on linen
70 x 53 inches
Private Collection


TERRY WINTERS
Station 1984
oil on linen
71 x 59 inches
Private Collection