Visual Arts

“A Natural Perspective” Plants the Seed of Botanical Art at Phoenix Art Museum

Phoenix Art Museum and the Desert Botanical Garden have two of the country's most beautiful collections of plant life. But you can't find them in the landscaping. These plants are hanging on the walls.

Humans have been drawing pretty flowers for a long time. Early depictions of plants can be traced back to antiquity. But it wasn't until the Age of Enlightenment in Western Europe that botanical art became a scientific endeavor and, eventually, an artistic genre of its own.

Since photography was in its infancy during this period, visual recordings of science could be produced only by hand. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution caused unprecedented circulation of print media. Information spread at a hurried rate, igniting the collective curiosity of Western civilization. And when it came to studying plants, botanical art was in high demand.

And unlike other scientific illustrations (medical drawings, for instance), botanical art is pretty. People want to look at the works and hang them in their homes.

What emerged is the style we see today. Plants are rendered in a state of total isolation so there's no distraction from their anatomical features. Tremendous detail is necessary because such illustrations can't be considered "botanical art" unless they properly display the structure of the species and effectively communicate it to the viewer. At that point, it's up to the artist to make it visually pleasing.

Of course, with the popularity of color photography, botanical art took a hit in the 1960s and 1970s. But in the past 15 years, botanical art has come back. With an increasing cultural interest in environmental issues, artists latched onto the genre. Even field guides have stopped using photography for their texts, giving preferential treatment to the drawings. Unlike photographers, artists can accentuate important anatomical aspects, crucial for proper identification.

Take Helianthus annus (Sunflower) by Karen Kluglein, for instance. Bright yellow and amber petals rest on each other's silky skin. The saffron ruffle surrounds a circular dark mass of glistening umber seeds. The flower rests on a thick tangle of green tissue that tapers into a long, slender stem. The stalk glows as light catches its iridescent fuzzy covering. The splash of bold colors floats in a white milk of quiet negative space.

This work, along with 39 others, is on display at Phoenix Art Museum as part of "A Natural Perspective." Every piece is rich, articulate, and absolutely stunning. Sure, each pays homage to the historic practice and continues the tradition, but what makes the show so tremendous is its immediate beauty.

PAM's display in the Lyons Gallery (an understated hallway to the left of the lobby) also has an entire vegetable section. The Deadon cabbage boasts rich mauve, purple, and lavender leaves as a nearby green cluster bursts gorgeous Brussels sprouts. These vegetables, isolated in negative space and meticulously rendered, are a real treat. You'll have the chance to study every vein, ripple, and delicate skin of exotic veggies like shallots, prickly pears, persimmons, and Chinese lanterns.

Another of my favorites at PAM is Joan McGann's Echinocactus grusonii (Golden Barrel Cactus). This pen-and-ink drawing has an aerial perspective, as if you're hovering over the cactus, staring down. The pale scalp of the barrel explodes with a ring of buds and blooming cactus flowers. Brutal spikes burst around the perimeter. From this perspective, you can see evolution at work. The needles act as a barbed-wire castle wall, protecting the vulnerable flowers.

The secondary show, "Legacy," at the Desert Botanical Garden offers 26 additional works. Unlike the collection at PAM, the one in the Ottosen Gallery is by award-winning artists. The pieces are larger and more dramatic. And there's something about these works that, in my opinion, have more impact.

One particularly beautiful work by Linda Funk shows a cluster of pale lilies, in all stages of development. Slender buds that are barely opening dominate the foreground as an elderly flower in the back slumps with curling, pale petals. The artist clearly communicates a poignant expression of passing lives. They emerge from the same stem but their lives barely overlap. I was moved.

On the opposite end of the spectrum sits a piece by Katherine Manisco. It's one of the only ones in the gallery that isn't a flower. Instead, it's a hideous, pimply gourd (a Hokkaido squash, to be specific). And though I've never been a fan of the acne-riddled vegetables, this flaming red-orange, monstrous, bulbous and pot-bellied thing is comical — a completely different personality from the lilies that left me misty-eyed.

But I suppose that's fitting. Why shouldn't they have different personalities? These are portraits of living things, after all.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi