A full-color catalogue for 'FLORA', an exhibition of paintings by nine stylistically diverse contemporary artists: Donald Baechler, Ross Bleckner, André Butzer, Petra Cortright, Marc Handelman, John Newsom, Rachel Rossin, Julian Schnabel, and Brian Willmont. The artists were chosen for their idiosyncratic approaches to floral and plant motifs, which reflect the multiplicity of their worldviews and artistic practices. The result is an aesthetically and intellectually adventurous “flower show” that’s not about flowers.
For several artists, the term flora communicates a strong idea of place. Rachel Rossin, the New Museum in New York’s first-ever Virtual Reality Fellow, has made what she describes as “plein air paintings of virtual flowers” for the exhibition. To create the initial computer models from which she paints, Rossin inputs the unique light qualities and atmospheric conditions of her hometown of Palm Beach County, Florida, into the 3-D modeling software, infusing her fictive, virtual flowers with a memory of rootedness.
The geographical connections—or disconnections—between plant and place are even more apparent in the works of Julian Schnabel and Marc Handelman. In Schnabel’s Port of Lisbon, from the veteran Neo-Expressionist artist’s Navigation series, purple and crimson oil paint meanders across vintage maps of Cuba and Portugal. Actual particles of Mexican soil and plant life embedded in the paint complicates the sense of place, while the roving lines suggest imaginary journeys that exceed the limits of cartography. Although more intimate in scale and softer in emotional tenor, Marc Handelman’s Towards a Form of Voluntary Dispossession (for Édouard Glissant) explores a similar theme of geographic liminality. Towards a Form of Voluntary Dispossession is a series of delicate, luminous watercolor and mixed-media paintings inspired by the tropical orchid motifs of 19th century Luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade. Through his use of repetition, Handelman reveals the artifice behind Heade’s apparent naturalism, while at the same time finding surprising emotional connections in the luxuriant and ever-morphing colors of the orchids he so lovingly repaints.
Petra Cortright builds layers of pixelated brushstrokes into billowing clouds of floral extravagance in her one-of-a-kind digital paintings. Cortright foregrounds the technological futurism of her flowers by means of cutting-edge printing methods that allow her to compose with contrasting lusters, from matte to glossy, on anodized aluminum supports. Brian Willmont, on the other hand, uses meticulously handcrafted stenciling and airbrush techniques to make his icy cool paintings of poppies. Like Cortright, Willmont approaches the concept of flora from a post-natural perspective: his wavelike effects mimic Photoshop distortion filters, and the lush purple and amber gradients with which he fills his poppy flower silhouettes suggest retro-futurist sunglass tints.
If Cortright and Willmont dramatize our distance from the natural world, John Newsom’s Meadow Paintings provide an opportunity for us to reconnect. In each painting, Newsom employs subtle optical effects that convey the cosmic grandeur of a sunflower or the mysterious sensation of petals dematerializing in the wind. His titles, such as Tender Certainty, Within a Moment, and Origin of Light, signal that there are metaphysical subtleties at play in these works. The Meadow Paintings encourage us to slip beneath the surface of things into a world of fascination and enchantment.
Other Flora artists use the flower motif as a stand-in for the human subject or the inner self. Ross Bleckner’s motion-blurred flowers that dissolve into fields of shimmering light feel like human bodies on the verge of transfiguration or suspended in the timelessness of a lover’s memory. André Butzer’s rows of thumbprint-sized, primary-color marks on sketchbook paper, meanwhile, suggest pointillist landscapes pressed like fresh juice into the most elemental concentrations of color and pattern. While Butzer’s paintings on paper eschew Bleckner’s romanticism, their handmade quality and intimate scale lends them a joyful humanism. Similarly, Donald Baechler is attracted to the charm and pathos of naïve drawings, and his flower paintings use sophisticated compositional and color strategies to elevate the source material to a state of stoic nobility without losing the idiosyncrasies that make them so human.
The nine artists in Flora have developed very different strategies for incorporating floral motifs into artworks that feel exciting and relevant in the twenty-first century. By placing these artists in conversation, Flora allows us to draw intriguing connections among their respective works and marvel at the breadth of poetic expression, stylistic innovation, and philosophical insight that the natural world inspires.
Text by Logan Royce Beitmen