Flowers and Photography at the Art Gallery of Peterborough
Until Sept. 2, 250 Crescent St., Peterborough, Ont.; agp.on.ca
According to the various governmental and retail monitors who track such things, well over half the homes in Canada maintain gardens, and the average gardener spends around 250 bucks a year on petunias and fertilizer (and that's the low end of the spending spectrum).
Given this widespread interest in flowers and shrubs, why are artworks concerned with same often derided by art snobs as common, amateurish, "Sunday painter"-made, and tacky?
Is it just another typical art world/real world disconnect – or does this hesitancy to embrace works with floral themes betray a more profound distaste; namely, a distrust of the feminine?
Flowers and women have such a long cross-association in poetry, drama, art and film that it is impossible to not read this disdain as a product of old-fashioned chauvinism. Flowers are for ladies, dainty ladies in big hats. Art is for men, serious scholarly men, usually minimalists.
An exhibition at the Art Gallery of Peterborough, unpretentiously titled Flowers and Photography, offers new and historical works by six female artists, each at different stages in their careers, and all of whom actively disprove the idea that the flower as subject is twee, genteel, or even necessarily pretty.
As curated by the AGP's Carla Garnet, Flowers and Photography is very much an unapologetic feminist action, least of all because all the women are artists. What Garnet is doing is showing that the flower-as-subject, both as a projection (by the still male-dominated art world) of what constitutes so-called "women's art" and as a repository of all the attendant misreadings of that stupid term, actually creates as much instability, and defeats as many narrow readings, as any other subject pursuit.
Why not, then, first embrace the stale reading of depictions of flowers as women's art by staging an all-woman show? And then kick the tired prejudice in the pants by showing works with floral themes, by women, that do everything from celebrate flowers as coveted objects to sexualize flowers to depict them as signifiers of oppressive social norms?
This clever show invites you in, offers you a bouquet, then lets you stumble on the earwigs climbing up the stalks.
Dyan Marie's long horizontal photographs, printed on various vinyl tarp-like textiles, present the flower as key notes in the urban visual stream, as bright pixels in a relentless flux of information.
Marie picks one flower, or small cluster of flowers, isolates it/them, and then digitally warps all the visuals around the flower(s) – yanking the street, the people, the light poles, etc, sideways until the whole streetscape, apart from the chosen floral element, resembles pulled, very colourful, taffy.
Thus, the flower(s) become pause buttons, starting points for reflection; on the role of the individual amongst the pressing collective, on the brain's ability to laser focus on singular sensations, and on, yes, the literal importance of stopping to smell the roses. Or, in this case, the marigolds.
In a related series, Marie photographs single flower heads in close up, anchors them at one end of her horizontal prints, and then captures the streams of impossibly minute pollen wafting off each flower, streams that blanket the bulk of the image.
Whether or not Marie has actually photographed pollen or faked it digitally, I have no idea – but it hardly matters.
In these images, the flower is not a fragile ornament, but a pulsing messenger, active and aggressive, a spreader of DNA, a parent.
Similarly, Lori Newdick's giant close-ups of the interiors of budding flowers have a distinctly reproductive feel. With a tip of the bowler hat to Georgia O'Keeffe, Newdick relishes in gynecological connotations, in the flower as source of fecund power.
Unlike O'Keeffe, however, Newdick does not present this flower/genital parallel as something mystical or intangible, nor does she present the budding flowers' combination of openness and enfoldment as a kind of bottomless, indefinable lack, as O'Keeffe often did – the vaginal flower here is robust, takes up plenty of space, and is a complete object in itself, not merely the gateway to something outside of the feminine, some dreamy post-gender space. These are flowers that look like women's sexual organs. Full stop.
No apologies needed, no distancing, spiritual (and thus sexuality-occluding) pajama games played.
Oddly, the works I found most effective in Flowers and Photography were Suzy Lake's suite of images of gardens in decline. Apparently shot in the early morning, when shadows angle westward, the tall, vertical photos show once-luscious, once winding upward roses and now faded lower ground cover plants as they have begun to turn brown, dry up and drop the few buds that never made it to full bloom.
Haunting in their simplicity, these images, shadow puppet plays enacted with twigs and limp sprouts, turn the viewer's awareness to the other truth about flowers: For every burst of colour, heady perfume, and awe-inducing interplay of petal, pistil and stem, there is an inevitable, crispy and lifeless conclusion.
Flowers can connote all the febrile fertility they want, but their days are always numbered. There's a reason we mark celebrations of life stages with flowers, and an equally solid reason we mark death with the same.
That Lake is the most senior artist in the exhibition (certainly in terms of practice, perhaps in years) and is also contributing the show's only hard note of looming demise, of seasons passing, cannot be accidental. Lake's long career gives her license to visualize, bluntly, both the new bloom and the subsequent husk. And it is this very frankness that, conversely, makes Lake's work perennially fresh.
IN OTHER VENUES
Anna Gaby-Trotz at Graven Feather
Until Aug. 31, 906 Queen St. W., Toronto; gravenfeather.ca
Gaby-Trotz's dramatic, Wagnerian images of the Nahanni region of the Northwest Territories, a place that might as well be the moon to urbanites, are full of booming cliff faces and quiet, chuckling pebbles.
Until Aug. 26, 85 Carlaw Ave.
A series of commissioned interventions by multidisciplinary artists, all set in a typical Toronto backyard. A sweet and funny tag game played out between private space and public art, the show is as comfy as a hammock and as cleverly engaging as a mystery novel. Visiting hours: Wednesday-Thursday, 1-6 p.m.
Sarah Nasby at Convenience Gallery
Until Sept. 16, 58 Lansdowne Ave., conveniencegallery.com
Finally, a show that addresses the space's retail past. Cramming the window with display racks, blinking lights, and shapes and colours poached from packaging, Nasby does everything but sell bread.