Floral still lifes and lush landscapes were once considered lowest in the Hierarchy of Genres, until the Middle Ages when a secular, upper-middle class of art consumers emerged, and filled their lavish homes with them. From here the Dutch Golden Age, the 19th and early 20th century Impressionists and Fauves that broke the rules again, and to present-day modern art, all representations of flowers, plants, and landscapes, and their rife potential for philosophical symbolism, multifarious messages, and still simply beautiful sublime imagery, make it a widely popular and deeply appreciated subject matter for audiences and artists alike. Juried by Ken Harman, director of San Francisco’s Hashimoto Contemporary and Spoke Art, and curatorial assistant MacKenzie Stevens of Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, Botanica: All Things Plant Life now at Walnut Creek’s Bedford Gallery is a widely-encompassing group show including artwork by over one hundred artists that open up these at times stifling categorizations and types, and examine the multiple ways contemporary artists represent plant life — and in many ways implement it as media — in a diverse range of approaches, perspectives, and styles.
A bold testament to the show’s accomplishments is that, yet with over a hundred artworks on view in the show, each is a unique and equally important contribution. Exhibiting artists like Lisa Gosling, Kija Lucas, and Carrie Di Costanzo reveal the multitude of ways that botany, biology, and scientific inquiry marry into the representation of plant life. In Oregano Gosling studies the amazing world inside a single, humble herb through a magnifying glass, and responds to her scientific findings in a provocative way. Lucas’ imagery, however, follows plant life through botanical samples taken from lands where her ancestors lived and worked, native and so-called “invasive” species, investigating ideas of belonging and identity. Carrie Di Costanzo, a trained botanical artist, reveals the simple beauty of the flower or plant she illustrates, highlighting its fine textures, colors, and form.
Others cover still more varieties of the genre. Stretching the landscape terminology to its utter limits, artwork including those by Anna Vaughan, Samantha Parker Salazar, and Ivory Yeunmi Lee give audiences rare glimpses of fantastical voyages to wonderlands filled with imaginative terrain, and its flora gives evidence to these dreamlike escapes. Vaughan’s sculptures for example reveal the artist’s profound love of natural world, and the joy, curiosity and amazement it inspires in her. Her human figures are completely immersed in these surreal environs — exploring the mystical relationship between humans with the natural world. Salazar’s beautiful images of bright colors and beautifully opulent flora, placed upon an abstracted base suggesting dynamic movement, create immersive experiences and reveal its sublime, romantic beauty. Ivory Yeunmi Lee’s paintings examine the surreality of the “garden,” which exists as both that which is concurrently natural and artificial. Instilling contradictory symbolism in unfamiliar imagery, Lee exacerbates this strangeness, and the uncanny nature of this artificial world.
Botanica also includes depictions of floral still life and landscape as it has also been utilized as a meditative font, as well as its position as a potent symbol from which to extract greater truths about life and meaning. Tamara English, Adam Forfang, and Greg Kernel’s work are just some that explore this aspect in the show. Tamara English’s oil paintings of plants exude a great shimmering light, evoking a relationship between the immortally-renewing cycles of nature and the spiritual divine, beyond any specific religion. Similarly, Forfang’s deceptively simple painting of three wilting gardenias in a small dark vase evokes symbolism that is deeply felt if given a moment of meditation and introspection. The dark background upon which the flowers are presented contrasted with a bright light source coming from the side, which shed light upon the flowers symbolizing a secret love prove the paintings of such seemingly simple tableaux are more than just exercises in depiction, shadows, and light. Perhaps most effectively, Greg Kernel’s evocative video compiling fifteen time lapses of cactus flowers growing, blooming, and then wilting is a powerful meditative portrayal of the fleeting and brilliant beauty of birth, life, and death.
“Botanica: All Things Plant Life” will be at Bedford Gallery, 1601 Civic Drive Walnut Creek through September 6, 2015.