Curated by Owen Reynolds Clements / Text by Daniel Reich
In present times, we wake up to the newspaper headline “genome research produces tastier tomatoes” telling us that we have finally attained the ability to create a world where things have become day-glow, dot-matrix, and sci-fi. We have harnessed the laws of nature starting at the cellular level. To picture these tastier tomatoes, we might use the visually fake vocabulary of Pierre et Gilles, as if inhabiting a Memphis-designed, airbrushed world. Yet we still possess the temerity to use the term “natural” to distinguish ourselves from the artificial world of our creation.
We are both a part of nature and exiles from it. We recognize that nature has a code of conduct independent from our own, although we are not precisely sure what it is. So we are naturally unnatural. Science lets us study nature’s ecology, components, and systems and even sets about protecting it as though we had the up- per hand in the relationship. And we marvel at nature’s hallucinatory specificity, vivid color, and variety of form even within a mere acre of land. So we conceive of ourselves as holistic and natural, albeit in a completely Versace way.
Such a train of thought comes to mind upon viewing the exhibition Plantimplant, a selection of works forming an assemblage, like cut magazine photographs tacked to an idea board or a pile of images on the curator’s computer desktop.
Billy Rennekamp’s ribald plant sculptures are imagina- tively equipped with protective rubber and plastic sports gear. Sports gear might occupy its own aesthetic genre of day-glow color, basketball texture, and zigzags of a sort only a kid born after the Commodore 64 would find homelike. With the sexual kinkiness of fetish culture, the innocuous and fragile aspect of the plant plays with the idea of plant care becoming a holistic surrogate. We prune it and obsessively water it with Miracle-Gro for a period of consecutive weeks until we fall out of love and ignore it for six straight days. In addition to having comedic aspects, Rennekamp’s sculptures are cool imaginings of humanoid forms.
Thomas Ahlgren’s photographs capture the sculptural silhouette of potted houseplants for sale through scratched, smog-streaked New York City display windows at night. These introverted soil-based beings rest in somber shadow and gloominess, uncomfortably lit by clinical fluorescent examination-room light that casts geometric formalist shadows. The houseplants have a spooky, timeless, stillness to them, like monstrous dead things. These sad plants have human emotional quality: marred by misfortune and loneliness. There is a sense of the profound isolation and exposure of the petri dish.
In contrast to Ahlgren’s vision, Nils Dunkel’s plants fall into the category of “nature manufactured by man.” Dunkel’s plants exist in the glow-in-the-dark atomic age of Peter Halley abstractions, mapping the under- ground rooms and passageways of a nuclear missile site like the United States Strategic Command buried in Omaha, Nebraska. Mounted on aluminum, Dunkel’s candy-colored description of abundant nature sucks us through the cybernetic wormhole of an airplane toilet into a plastic, hyper-futuristic, yet possibly toxic environment.
Evan Gruzis’s process depends on the precise control of ink, a wildly runny medium, to create the impression that his works are mechanically produced. His strange backlit images are like silhouettes from a Ray Bradbury story: profusely artificial plant life in front of airbrushed setting suns. Blade-like forms resemble grass or the shark fin of an aerodynamically designed automobile. As with Dunkel, Gruzis’s work demonstrates the way that the baroque proliferation of natural form crosses into the realm of the rare and artificial.
San Francisco-based Stevie Howell’s silkscreen-like overexposed photographs portray eroded and cracked pavement. Pavement, a city surface, yields soil for weeds and grass to grow as it disintegrates, reminding us of the primordial trudge through mud or scramble up a rock, which we largely reject, favoring speedy passageways down which to multitask on the smart phone—like what President Clinton called the “informa- tion superhighway.” Paint is stuck bubblegum-like to the surface with a palette knife, and the photographs are digitally rearranged and altered.
Katja Kollowa, a sculptor from Berlin, forms organically round puddles of poured cement. Polished to perfection, Kollowa’s sculptures hang vertically on a wall forming a mirror-like surface. Subtle tone and variation in cement reveal themselves on still, silent, forms that are quietly reminiscent of Rothko. We see not only the still water of Narcissus in their reflective surfaces, but a spatial rabbit hole. Kollowa’s work is paradoxical and touchstone in simultaneously being an obstruction and an intriguing passageway.
Adam Marnie’s mixed-media photo collages are made in New York City. On punched-through drywall, photographic cutouts of berries, plants, and twigs proliferate on cut surfaces. As with Howell and Kollowa, the artificial and the natural collide in Marnie’s photographs as conscious arrangements of botanical nature, so that as with Dunkel and Gruzis, the baroque proliferation of the natural becomes itself artificial.
Perfomance artist, musician, and disc jockey, Planningtorock often affixes prosthetic makeup to her face and body to mimic a deformed sculptural nose or modified silhouette. In the video “Black Thumber,” she floats and jumps like a nymph against a wooded backdrop, nearly camouflaged. Her unreal motions transpire at a digitally altered speed while the environment is seen as if through water or some translucent synthetic lava-like substance.
This hypnotically simple beauty is further explored by Josh Reames, from Chicago, in an uncanny grey painting of a divided rose-like form with the unnatural disjointed feel of pixilated line and color. Pinks and grays bisect the painting, negating and cracking it to produce an escapist fantasy.
Matthew Satz’s 27 ragged strands of canvas are dipped in metallic paint and hung on the wall so as to graze the floor. Like a curtain made from rags in a derelict part of town, the work’s shabbiness recalls weeds. Yet it has a futuristic faux-organic appeal. Somewhat like Satz’s curtain, Marcus Steffens’s series “1 AM” is composed of two photographs of a wall of harshly-lit tree branches creating a flat abstract image. Elmar Vestner, a Berlin- based mixed media artist, finds his source material in romantic Whitman-inspired landscapes. Rubbing away, pouring over, dissolving, and sanding the surfaces of these botanical images, Vestner disrupts, conceals, and exposes the pulp of the paper beneath, speaking to the transitional and temporary aspect of imagining the natural.
The naps of Martin Roth’s Persian rugs are sown with grass seed, watered, and attended to so that actual grass grows within the patterns of rugs selected for their depictions of gardens. Roth observes:
“As a child I found a dead mole in a trap in the garden outside my family home. After carrying it with me all afternoon, I placed it underneath the Oriental rug. The way my knowledge of the dead mole occupied and redefined the surface/object and its relation to surrounding space is something I am still interested in exploring in my work. It also provided me with a glimpse of what it meant to be here and not here in a state of in-between; a lightness of being that lies at the core of my interests today.“
Roth’s statement touches on key themes of Plantimplant: the idea of a thing isolated and transplanted from one place to another, the idea that surface imagery conceals fecund things beneath, and the surrealism of popular and commercial aesthetics today, as captured in the menu of luscious pictures in the desktop and screensaver preferences on the computer. A visitor to Owen Reynolds Clements’s Plantimplant ultimately comes away with the sense that our vision of nature is evolving and our attitude towards it is dynamic: both sympathetic, foreign, and eternal, our perception of nature mirrors our synthetic prosthetic time.