The Secret Life of Plants

Using enlargements, Karl Blossfeldt sought to extend through photography what could be seen with the unaided eye. The exploration of forms in nature resulted in his revealing 1928 book Urformen der Kunst ("Original Forms of Art"). Blossfeldt's early apprenticeship at an ironworks -- where he first developed a responsiveness to curving, attenuated forms -- had a lasting influence. By isolating greatly enlarged details of stems against a plain background, he called attention to the unfolding of buds and new leaves into arching forms as they mature. In such Blossfeldt prints as Macleya cordata and Circium canum, the filigree of nature's designs and "engineering" wonders has been enlarged several times to provide intimate knowledge of the plants. Some forms seem to assume personalities, suggesting an identification of lower plant forms with human life; others have the cold solidity of ornamental or architectural details.

The Germans' penchant for close-up photography was picked up by the Northern California photographer Imogen Cunningham. Her perception of growing things is scientific, but at the same time reveals the heart of the plant, the gutsiness of the flower. Yucca Plant is an orchestration of form, line and texture; Cunningham's placement of the yucca and her sensitive use of light and dark go beyond what a scientist would see in evoking the essence of nature.

Similarly, the purpose of Robert Mapplethorpe's beautiful floral still lifes is not to explain or document what he observes, or to cast a cold eye upon it, but rather to reveal, even create, its beauty. His Tulip and Bird of Paradise aim to draw us into an obsession charged with a forthright fetishism marked by careful charm and overwhelming

ensations of desire. Eroticism is at the heart of it all: how light molds the petals of flowers into naked flesh.

Conversely, Adam Fuss' photograms of leaves are tactile, visceral impulses that invoke the moment of photographic creation, and the life of organic material, with an eerie immediacy. His fluid halos of autumnal color pulse with deep optical vibrations, rekindling the primal arousal of senses encoded in our collective memory.

The mixture of scientific inquiry and wonder at nature's creations also underscores Virgil Grotfeldt's poetic works of coal dust on paper presented in Hiram Butler's front gallery. Grotfeldt invokes alchemical practices and magical beliefs, organic transmutations between inner and outer worlds. He continually plays with opposites in these intimate visions: between clarity and obscurity; between traditional painterly expressiveness and strategies of appropriation. Grotfeldt's unabashed sensuality and attention to process -- to gesture and the hand -- give his works an undeniably tactile "presentness," while his ambiguous imagery reaches down to the primitive and atavistic.

Some images -- spores, cocoons, embryos and nebulae -- have been lodged, like a tough shell, deep in our soul. They are of one's own inner world, shadowy forms that find their correspondences in nature, in the cosmos -- oceanic and cleansing -- where everything that emerges has its place in the cycle of growth and decay. Grotfeldt's visceral forms emanate from coal dust, which he applies to sheets torn from a 1930s trigonometry journal purchased at a Berlin flea market. The coal dust, a product of plant and animal life transformed through age and time, takes on a spirit of its own, magical powders of gold, black, and indigo hues that congeal as mystical images resembling a bee, rootless plants, sprouting seeds and buds. These are primal elements of the natural world -- images on the threshold of being, on the border between material and immaterial, between articulated form and the inchoate. The vulnerability and ambiguity of these forms and their sexual suggestiveness offset the empirical knowledge relayed by the beautifully handwritten mathematical formulas strewn about the page.

By cultivating intuitive forces that create friction, ambiguity and fluctuation, Grotfeldt infuses his art with unusual metaphoric power. Like the botanical photographers, he shows us that the structure, erotics, and poetics of vision can merge in a secular sense of wonder, but one not immune to the doubts infusing our times.

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