Friday, September 19, 2008

Garden Variety: Review by Jeff Filipiak

This is the second review we recieved for our opening Garden Variety. It was written by Jeff Filipiak for the art review website, Susceptible to Images. You can read the whole review below, or HERE.Garden Variety: Works by Joseph Sinness, Erika Olson, River Bullock
By Jeff Filipiak

The origins of the current show at the young Armoury Gallery have more to do with domesticity than dirt. These artists wanted to explore issues at home, and during the summer happened to step outside and find inspiration in their yards. Their work ended up amidst plants and animals, exploring gardens from a variety of angles. They use visuals as a means of contemplating aesthetics, identity, and the place of 'natural' elements within human lives, especially sexuality. Joseph Sinness finds both innocence and kitsch in the garden; his favorite subjects, rabbits, might reflect both. Erika Olson's works explore reproduction, dominated by seed flows; while River Bullock focuses on our perceptions of plantscapes. Other than the Swiss chard growing in her soil-based installation, there is little evidence of food in these gardens – they are primarily visual, theoretical, and/or decorative.

In the gardens of Joseph Sinness (both the colored-pencil ones in the gallery, and the ones in his yard), grown for pleasure instead of food, he coexists with rabbits; in fact, he identifies with them against cats. His most frightening image is that of a monstrous cat (inspired, he says, by hearing baby rabbits scream in agony in the middle of the night). Rabbits are his symbol of innocence; equally prominent are symbols of kitsch, drawn from discos, Dolly Parton and Kylie Minogue. His works often feature some kind of conflict between two subjects; between something innocent and something dynamic, or between a couple and onlookers judging them. The viewer might draw their own conclusions from these conflicts – is a 'fall' occurring? Are we observing something natural, or something sinister? Sinness draws attention to some of the stakes, influenced by centuries-old Christian imagery as he provides imagery from Hieronymus Bosch to go along with the gardens and images of judgment.Erika Olson works primarily in watercolor, gouache and graphite; but her pieces are really about flows. She covers about half of each work (except for one sculpture) with a pattern that usually consists of three different varieties of images. Those varieties are drawn as if borne upon a current; they seem to float, stick together. Her works suggest motion, but are calm. She depicts flows of seeds, drawing our attention to plant reproduction; but her images extend beyond typical garden plants to what appear to be pinecones, diamonds and clam shells. These are flows orchestrated by a human hand, but resemble natural flows (they do not resemble typical garden or machine patterns). Her objects are sketched more geometrically than particularly, more suggestively than thoroughly.

While Olson and Sinness direct the reader's attentions to a few key elements, highlighting them by leaving as much as half of their surfaces blank, River Bullock does less to 'clean up' nature. She photographs, and her scenes are full. Not only that, but she lets her scenes overlap the photos, suggesting a lack of isolation, that these plants are part of a larger mass. Photos are not cropped to include distinctive elements on the edges, nor did she highlight key elements like one plant or one branch. Instead, these felt full, as if she was taking group photos rather than highlighting individuals. Four of her photos feature two plant layers (each apparently a different species) and a third layer, of darkness. She limits her organization of the materials in other ways as well – all her pieces are untitled, without labels (admittedly, I was curious to see a list of 'materials' for her soil plot). The viewer is left to draw connections between the disparate elements of her installation – photographs, a small actual garden plot (including dirt, plants, and worms), and a reading list. The soil adds a vital element to a garden show, literally grounding the works of the other artists. Bullock hopes to encourage viewers to do their own looking – and reading, since she provides a reading list on nature and plants, led off by Wendell Berry.

After viewing the show, we are left to wonder: what is the human place in the garden, where humans seek to organize nature in a domestic space? Sinness identifies with some animals against others; should we be taking sides? Gardeners take sides for the sake of food, of course, but is it also justified for other reasons? Homosexuality has been criticized as unnatural, yet Sinness explores it using natural images, complicating issues. Bullock tries to minimize the human role in some ways, leaving more to the viewer to determine, allowing 'weed' species more of a role in her gardens. Olson raises these issues most explicitly in her artist statement, asking "when nature is cleaned up, arranged and controlled by humans what value does that interaction hold for us?" Excessive oversimplification through monoculture, of the mind or on the ground, does not leave a role for natural creative impulses, whether of humans or nonhumans. So we must strike a balance between the selection and narrowing of focus found in gardening and in art – and the collection, identification, and nurturing which nourishes humans and nonhumans alike.

Jeff Filipiak is an instructor at several local colleges, and frequent contributor to Susceptible to Images. He is currently teaching a course on "Food and Power: Why Am I Eating This?"

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