The Secret Life of Plants

Botany occupies a peculiar position in the history of human knowledge. For eons it was the one field in which humankind had anything more than the vaguest of insights. Tropical cultures survived for millennia by utilizing the magical properties of flora -- an ability that has been largely lost in our technological society. Much of humanity now holds only a piecemeal conception of the ecosystem that sustains it. The more civilized we become, the further we are removed from direct contact with plants, and the more indistinct our knowledge of botany grows. When a culture imbues all of nature with powerful properties, a world of discovery is possible, perhaps even a world of magic. Crude and imperfect, magic was our first conscious abstraction from nature, our first attempt to link disparate objects through some unseen attraction between them.

Anyone who has a hard time imagining today the overlay of mystical, allegorical and mythical interpretations of nature should look closely at Hiram Butler Gallery's provocative exhibition of botanical photographs. Drawn from a show organized by the Julie Saul Gallery in New York and augmented with a rotating component of works by local artists (currently Virgil Grotfeldt), the survey -- which ranges from mid-19th-century experimental photographic engravings and early 20th-century vintage prints to contemporary color photograms -- entices us to rediscover the mixture of wonder and scientific inquiry. In these photographs of plant life and the light that nourishes that life, the attitude toward both nature and the photographic medium is reverent, at times even mystical. There is a spiritual cast to many of the images, a distinct appetite for the pure and the absolute. The result is a kind of visual allegory on the nature of art and its relation to the nature of plants. And one thing this allegory tells us is that any object in nature that is made into an object of contemplation has the power to affect us as an object of art. Within each scientist and artist exists a curious mixture of science and aesthetics, truth and illusion, fact and fiction.

The botanical images at Butler Gallery inhabit a place between enigma and science. Petals, analogues of sexual organs, wrap around protruding tongue-like spadices. Stems, roots and pistils suggest embryology and reproductive processes in images of delicate radiance. But "nature" in photography is not the nature of nature; it is the "nature" of art -- made in the act of observation and the mystery of response. It is fixed and finite, something that nature can never be. Neither an improvement on nor a diminution of actual nature, nature-captured-as-art is something separate and parallel -- an aesthetic correlative that gives form to an emotion.

This particular collection of botanicals offers a dialogue between photographers who adhered to the scientific point of view and those attracted to more aesthetic investigations. The show begins with a fragile image of a single fern by William Henry Fox Talbot, who not only invented the negative/positive process that was the forerunner of modern photographic materials, but also produced the first books to be illustrated with photographs. Alongside are examples from the Hatton Fern Album, a mid-19th-century homage to the era's abiding passion for ferns. The collection belonged to amateur botanist John Hatton, curator of the spa at Bath, and includes a combination of early cyanotypes and nature prints, as well as original plant studies. The quiet, simple harmony of the ferns is beguiling, no matter how distant we may feel from the stuffy era in which they were produced. One still senses their presence and life force in the gallery, even though the purpose of the album was to clinically categorize the botanicals.

Taken as a whole, these 19th-century botanicals suggest erotic forms of repressed emotion, forced restraint and obsession. Note, in the cyanotype photograms by Bertha Jaques, how light creates hauntingly arousing images of thick-stemmed flowers and blossoms on a dreamy Prussian blue ground. Jaques, a founding member of the Chicago Etcher's Society, placed her specimens on transparent, light-sensitive paper and exposed the sheets to create negatives without using a camera. Jaques imbued her ghostly images with the turn-of-the-century spirit of art for art's sake. Plant Study, Indian Grass features a thick vertical shaft of weed with wiry filaments that carry one's eye back into the blue expanse. Tall Blue Lettuce is an animated display of spiky leaves and ephemeral dandelion particles churning around the stem.

In the 1920s, a new breed of photographer in tune with the very successful world of German technology and Germany's turbulent political situation overturned many of the major traditions of the medium. They fostered a new approach to photography: as a medium to examine such diverse things as biological specimens and the influence of Freud and the world of dreams. Albert Renger-Patzch set forth the view that everything in the world is beautiful, and one need only open one's eyes to the marvelous designs of people and nature. The visionary Ernst Fuhrmann was obsessed by the idea that the seemingly impenetrable maze of new knowledge about nature's patterns could be put in order by a camera. Fuhrmann's aim was to relate art objects to natural objects and to compare botany with zoology. Like his predecessors, Fuhrmann felt that plants could be structurally compared with animals. A 1930 botanical photo shows a slimy, alien form -- both beautiful and repellent -- curled up like a creature, or an intestine with nodules.

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.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >