Visual Arts


If artist Frances Whitehead had lived in 16th-century Europe, she probably would have been burned at the stake for being a witch. Whitehead's sculptural installations, which can be seen at Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery in an exhibition titled "The Dream," use unorthodox botanical materials classically associated with ancient divination and witchcraft, including the sacred laurel leaf and its oil, to ruminate on fate, lost innocence, beauty, death and control. Some materials the artist incorporates into her work are downright macabre, like the deadly nightshade berries from which the artist has concocted jam, solemnly displayed in two canning jars on a shiny, zinc-plated shelf. These berries are the source of atropine, a drug used for treating heart arrhythmia. They can also be both hallucinogenic and fatally poisonous.

In a display of twisted domesticity, Whitehead shares the recipe for her toxic treat on a wall text panel: "4 parts fruit--solanum dulcamara (bittersweet), 3 parts sugar; processed 15-20 minutes for a good seal." All the better to seduce and confuse you, my pretty.

Rich in multifaceted visual metaphors and classical mythological allusions, this show smells good, too. If you demonstrate even the slightest interest in Whitehead's work, gallery staff are only too pleased to lift bell jars to let you smell "Absolutes and Concretes," with its unappetizing globs of 100 percent odoriferous principals--the precious plant essences that perfumers have sought for centuries to make seductive scents. Some of them cost more than $1,000 per pound. Avoid the oak moss, which smells like a barnyard. Or you can get an intoxicating whiff of "Enfleurage of Deadly Nightshade," a disgusting but fragrant mixture of purified animal fat (usually from a certain breed of Italian hog) and nightshade flowers ensconced in an oversize glass jar; enfleurage is an age-old process of extracting perfume.

Whitehead's use of perfume imagery underscores the premise that beauty can be simultaneously seductive and repugnant. It can also, depending on degree, be deadly.

Currently an associate professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Frances Whitehead began working with her alchemical botanical components after she began to garden compulsively in 1987. Prior to that, she had never touched a trowel and, by her own admission, had no idea what she was doing at the time she started her first garden. With an NEA grant, she bought the building adjacent to her house, razed it and started her garden of nefarious delights.

One of the first gardening lessons Whitehead learned was that she could not will plants into being; this revelation led her to explore themes of lost will, control and innocence. The botanical names for plants piqued her interest, with their references to classical mythology around which much of the work in this show revolves. "The names for plants," explains the artist, "especially the Linnean and Latin names, revealed a great deal about their botanical and chemical nature and their cultural history. This connected with my ongoing sculptural interest in lost meaning, materiality and material allegory." In 1991, Whitehead was given a grant by the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation for her sculpture using bottle gourds, allegedly the oldest cultivars in the world. Employing a technique the Chinese have used for centuries, she nurtured the gourds as they grew encased in different geometric wire forms corresponding to ideal Platonic shapes. Some bent to her control, molding to the various shapes of their wire cages; others, less compliant, withered and died in their small jails.

In her current exhibition, works showcasing members of the deadly nightshade family, such as Atropa belladonna and Datura stramonium (poisonous jimsonweed), and the sweet bay laurel (the same stuff you use in your spaghetti sauce) predominate. Their symbolic interaction functions on a number of levels.

"The nightshades are historically connected to witches, divination, fate and desire, including sexual desire," notes Whitehead. "They equate [with] intoxication, dream and desire." Laurel is traditionally a symbol of fame and victory and, in the artist's mind, one of desire, also. For thousands of years, the laurel tree was dedicated to Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of poetry, prophecy, medicine and light, who was worshiped at the Oracle at Delphi. There, laurel leaves were burned while a priestess, probably high from the fumes, muttered profound and, at times, obscure predictions while in a trance. Whitehead weaves this rich mythological history into the focal pieces of the exhibit: translucent curtain swags cast in pine resin and coated with castor oil. (Don't bother touching them, or you'll be trapped like a fly in amber.) One swag bears the word "dream," another "fate."
The largest of these cloth pieces displays the cast words "Clotho, Lechesis, Atropos," who, in Greek mythology, are the three old women spinners representing fate: Clotho spins the thread of life, Lechesis measures its length and Atropos (Atropa belladonna is the botanical name for belladonna) ends up cutting it.

Hanging ominously above each piece, which resembles hardened honey, are vials from which aromatic laurel oil relentlessly drips on the resin, melting it into puddles of golden liquid on the floor. References to the final curtain of life and its inevitable erosion by desire are inescapable.

On a purely sensory plane, the gallery visitor is left with a feeling of having stumbled into some medieval alchemist's laboratory. If you can't respond to this show intellectually, it's worth seeing just for its purely sensual qualities. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the photographic work of Frank Martin, being shown concurrently at Sette under the title "Searching for the Peaks." Martin's work brings to mind that old art adage: "If it's bad, make it bigger." And that's just what he's done.

Martin, who lives and works in Houston as a professional photographer, has made huge, overexposed silver gelatin enlargements of mostly very boring landscapes, areas of which he chemically bleaches and tones to achieve a mottled, sometimes cloudy, effect. He then mounts the manipulated prints on unstretched canvas and calls them photographic monoprints.

I guess he thinks we'll be fooled into thinking that the prints have a painterly quality that transcends the photographic medium. The artist obviously is not convinced that unmanipulated photography can be fine art.

The problem with Martin's work is that, once you take away all the manipulation and the unstretched canvas, you're back to what you started with--those boring landscapes. Yes, I, too, was impressed by that July/August 1986 article in Darkroom Photography on bleaching, toning and redeveloping for painterly effects. But in this case, form does not overcome substance. Bottom line, Martin needs to be more concerned with content than process.