DemosNews: Plant/Artist Collaborations
Plant/Artist Collaborations
By: Herb Poole

I picked up a postcard by chance at the door of an Armory art show last week – two tissue thin, translucent, slightly overlapping lemon slices against a mysterious black ground, their rinds and central glow heightened with citron chalk. It announced the upcoming exhibition at the International Print Center New York of “Propagating Eden: Uses and Techniques of Nature Printing in Botany and Art,” not the sexiest of titles. Still, I love botanical subjects, the picture compelled, my curiosity was piqued.

I had expected to find a little museum on street level at the 526 West 26th Street address way over near 10th Avenue. Instead, inside the cavernous building, an old freight elevator manned rather casually lifted me to 8. Down long, anonymous corridors of the former warehouse or industrial space, turning several times, suddenly I came upon this lovely little exhibition.

Now, this isn’t a show to everyone’s taste. The subject is very spare. Botanical illustrations began long ago in the West, reaching back to Greek and Roman times. Initially their impulse for accurate depiction sprang from medicinal (and villainous, poisonous) requirements. Names for potent plants lacked currency from one locale to the next, but keen observation of salient characteristics—root, leaf structure, bud, bloom hue and shape, seed form—provided universal identifiers. Only later did plants take center stage in art for their beauty of form, love or mystical symbolism, and perfume.

Gorgeous plant portraits from the 6th century onwards survive in medicinal codices or herbals. However suitable means of reproduction had to be developed early on to disperse copies of them for information (or enjoyment.) Re-creation by hand obtained for centuries in monasteries and libraries, often with disastrous results in lost detail and form. The invention of block prints enabled a great step forward, etchings and engravings added further refinement. But beginning in the late 18th century a slew of fascinating photographic, x-ray, or print techniques greatly expanded dispersal possibilities, with new ones continuing to evolve today. “Propagating Eden,” focuses on a narrow portion of this outpouring: the living or dried plant matter itself as active player, manipulated by each botanist or artist to achieve a print. As co-curators Pari Stave and Matthew Zucker point out in the excellent text of their accompanying brochure, such direct interaction, plant to maker, has the immediacy and urgency of a handprint on a primordial cave wall or on Jasper Johns' painting.

Certain of the scientific albums in this show are themselves poignant as art. Sometimes technique creates pure magic, such as stereoscopic radiographs, or a digital scanner brought to the field. One or two of the contemporary renderings stray a bit to the heavy handed or ad decorative, in my opinion, and forget the subtlety of nature. It is an interesting mix. My favorites from the show aesthetically follow:

Most basic in method, Giuseppe Penone pulls a print from nature simply by rubbing graphite on paper over a small section of tree bark. Pages of different, softly abstract texture are gathered into a small handmade book. Leafing through them would yield the quiet pleasure of Zen meditation (“L’Image du Toucher”, 1994.)

A process known as cynotype negative developed in 1842. Its resultant image, pale against intense Prussian blue, came from an object being placed directly on a specially photosensitized plate, then exposed to strong light. Anna Atkin’s “Trichomanis crinitum” (c. 1851-54), because its blossoms were not flattened beforehand, captures a compelling, mysterious form, partly in focus, partly not, nestled in the strange deep blueness.

Alois Auer, in “Album of 1850-53”, capitalized on a different technique again, the newly invented process of electroplating. He squeezed intact plant specimens through the rollers of a press between a steel plate and a soft lead one, then coated the concavities of the lead sheet with a micro layer of copper to strengthen it. Ink gathered in the concave areas to print line with the first pass of the incised plate, a convex cast imparted color on the next run. To the modern conceptual eye, his tangled mass of green waterweed 2’ high toggles between dense, compressed complexity and latent readiness to feather back into fullness were it magically dropped back into a stream to net nutrients and minnows.

Valerie Hammond (“Jane” 2006) curves fernlets to the contours and swell of a raised hand and forearm, then captures them in print by means of Xerox transfer. She further works the ground with dark pencil and softens certain areas with semi-obscuring greenish wax to coax forth unity and volume.

Photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot imparted life-sized leaf to metal print plate by means of photoglyphic engraving (precursor to photogravure.) He coated the metal with photosensitive gel, set the little leaf atop it, and left it to harden in the sun. When the still soft (leaf protected) gelatin parts were washed away, acid bit the exposed pattern into the plate. In “Scented Geranium Leaf” (c. 1852-1857), delicately detailed and spare, the negative of little cuts and spurs reads as graceful and pleasing as the positive.

The small photogram pictured on the announcement that hooked me to visit this show is Robert Heinecken’s “L is for Lemon Slices, #3 (1971). Its intense yellow chalk highlighting the rinds, and the slight smear of pastel in their interior, render the slices luminescent against the pitch blackness. Stark understatement, the almost tender overlap of the slices, the little nip out of one edge of the rind, and the slight arcs of fleshy segments, entice the viewer to peer deeply with pleasure.

Johann Hieronymous Kniphof ( “Botanici in Originali Seu Herbarium Vivum, 1757-64”) rolled his prints directly from inked, dried plants, then colored each by hand. The plant fiber deteriorated after only 5 or 6 passes, so he continued with other nearly identical specimens. This for an edition of 1200 copies! Strangely, the very modesty and porous finish of the prints capture the gentle affection with which a true flower lover regards these favorite plants: the red poppy – protruding ovule knocked askew by the press, stamens a tiny flattened bouquet to the side, uneven spare color– somehow captures the frailty and tissue thin petals of this most delicate flower; the fragrant Poet’s Narcissus, one of the oldest and most beloved cultivars of its tribe; dianthus with its evocative clove perfume; and a winsome try at the famous broken color tulips, subject of manic Dutch speculation and bankruptcy.

Radiographs, now called x-rays, pair in stereoscopic context to enable a breathtaking series of flower portraits by Albert C. Richards. Blooms hover amid the darkness in full volume like magic, their soft parts ethereal, their stiff interior structure revealed. The old-fashioned plastic viewer and little disks of photos are the same that delighted us as kids. Happily, this experience can be duplicated at home, on order from the Jurassic Museum in California for $15!

Lastly, a standout in the show, Ana Golici (“Weeds, I, 2002”), captured dandelion-like fluff dispersing in the wind by bringing a scanner to the field, then printing the image by laserjet on silk. Lovely soft tones, cream to deep grey, comprise the palette. Focus feels sharper, darkened, highlighted in the foreground, then fades to radiant softness behind, evoking a painterly sense of depth and poetry.

“Propagating Eden” is a real NY experience—a lovely erudite show, tucked in the middle of nowhere, discovered by chance, deeply satisfying in its quiet and the light it shone on process. (6 March through 19 April 2008)

© 2018 Herb Poole of DemosNews

March 13, 2008 at 8:57am
DemosRating: 4.83
Hits: 2021

Genre: Arts (Reviews)
Type: Critical
Tags: propogating, eden, botanical, illustrations, print, making, radiographs


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