Gardens have been a source of contemplation and inspiration ever since we were booted out of the first one for bad behavior. These havens give us order and perfection within the otherwise untamed chaos of the natural world. In the solace they provide, some religious scholars have argued, we are reminded of that great paradise lost because two of our ancestors couldn't follow the pool rules of Eden.
Gardens are also the perfect subject matter for artists. For the Roman thinker Cicero, gardens represented the "third nature," a place where nature as controlled by man's utilitarian needs met with the untamed, primal first nature to create a physical landscape that incorporates both nature and art. In fact, in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, landscape designers were thought to be in the same artistic category as painters and sculptors.
Even before artists began experimenting with somewhat modern terms like design and composition, painting was always seen as an act heavily steeped in symbol and allegory. Though plein-air painting didn't become popular until the later 19th century, artists always brought the gardens inside, so to speak, and painted still life works of fresh flowers. For the Renaissance mind, weighing heavy religious allegory against a gradual humanist acceptance of the natural, secular world, there wasn't a more perfect subject for allegory than flowers. A blue iris was the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, the lily was Christ and the white lily stood for the purity of the Virgin. A flower's transitory nature as part of the temporal world allowed the artists of this time the ability to capture and save a moment of fleeting beauty before it withered and faded. And this temporality, being eternally avoided by the permanence of the image on the canvas, would then lead to the contemplation of the human condition in the fallen world through flowers as they grow to blossom, bloom beautifully, then quickly fade, sometimes in the space of one day.
"Garden as Theatre," the new exhibition of paintings by University of Arizona professor Barbara Rogers at Vanier Gallery in Scottsdale, is a follow-up to last year's "Dreaming of Eden" exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Rogers, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Europe visiting gardens, especially those designed by women, has arranged this current exhibition to highlight the vision of her garden paintings contrasted against black-and-white photographs of the gardens she used for inspiration in these works.
The result is mixed; the paintings stand by themselves artistically and conceptually, but the photographs, some blown up to such a grand scale that the background is merely pixilated dots, come across as nothing more than a wrongly inspired attempt at intellectualizing the intent of the artist. When looking at, say, a painted nude, we don't need to see an actual photograph of the model posing for the artist. All that should be left in the artist's studio. If painting is interpretation instead of representation, then why do we as viewers care what the artist based this group of paintings on?
The best thing to do when viewing this exhibition, then, is to ignore the amateurish photography and concentrate on the real work itself. This is where Rogers' artistic vision truly shines.
In this exhibition, Rogers has continued her series of illusionary flower images caught against a cloudy diaphanous background of faded color titled "Her Garden: Objects and Sites Remembered" and has initiated a new group of works called simply "Garden as Theatre"
The "Garden as Theatre" series begins with works that are somewhat similar to the previous works. Like their predecessors, these works are infused with a pigment of golden browns, ambers, burnt yellows and subtle greens. The colors serve as background for the detached stems and other assorted exotic flower parts that populate the canvas. Like the still life painters before her, these flowers are taken out of the garden setting and saved from the inevitable cycle of blooming and dying that is played out in the garden. Given a sense of permanence through the act of being painted, Rogers raises the stature of nature from the temporal to the eternal. And the theater being spoken of in the title of these works is, in fact, the ultimate paradox found in our ability to idealize our own condition against the stark realities of the apparent insignificance of our daily travails.
But something happens to Rogers' paintings in the "Garden as Theatre" series. Just like the cleansing found after an April rain, the paintings, as the series continues, lose their earthly pigments and take on a newfound vibrancy that approaches a pop art stylized affectation.
The deep greens of manicured hedges found in earlier works become deep purples here. And the amber and honey-colored flower parts are replaced with stunning bright pinks and light greens that tend to lose their sense of representation and become bold caricatures similar to Warhol's works of flowers.
The effect, though, is visually stunning. Rogers has said before that the washed and faded look of some of her canvases came from an experience in Hawaii when, while photographing gardens for inspiration in her works, she was caught in hurricane Eiwa and left clinging to the top of a home surrounded by water. Witnessing the floating debris of the planted world had a profound impact on Rogers artistically. Apparently, the visions never left her.
In these new works, however, it seems Rogers is ready to free herself from this deluge remembrance and is, once again, painting flowers in all their natural vibrancy and splendor.
Rogers' vision of the garden as a microcosm of the struggles and cycles of our earthly condition reawakens us to the beauty and allegory found in our surrounding planted world. This is not a reminder cloaked in fear; it is one of simple promise and possibility. Though it seems like the garden may be the only place where man is able to physically guide and control the random chaos of nature, it is Rogers' work that shows us the beauty in living inside as well as outside of these ordained boundaries. And while gardens may be seen as constrictive and limiting to the force and power of nature, all this is diminished by the beautiful simplicity depicted in the fresh blossoms of a flower.
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