Elegant papyrus reeds grew over the tomb walls of Egyptian nobles, chrysanthemums and lotuses scrolled over Chinese porcelain, and abstracted plant forms can be found in whakairo patterns throughout New Zealand. Artists have always sought to explore their natural suroundings and depict what they found there, either as a backdrop for other subjects or as the subject itself. Flora brings together artworks across a range of media, all of which draw on the living world that we are part of.
Flora is front and centre in the works of Karl Maughan, Richard Orjis, and Reuben Paterson, but although the subject matter might be similar, each artist is using the language of flowers to say different things. Maughan’s textured oil paintings suggest a lush profusion of growth; his gestural brushwork creates an abundance of colour and life that threatens to spill out of the canvas. Richard Orjis’ The Children focuses tightly on the fleshy beauty of orchids, whose alien beauty is simultaneously alluring and disturbing.
Paterson’s glitter paintings are likewise replete with colour and light, but the flattened planes of abstracted floral forms recall printed patterns rather than naturalistic renderings. Throughout his career, Paterson has used vintage floral designs as a distillation of his own family recollections, particularly of his mother and maternal grandmother. The flowers of Something is Going to Happen to Me Today have ‘taken root’ in the black background surface of the canvases and blossom above the picture plane, a symbolic blooming of memory and personal histories. Christine Webster, Nigel Brown, and Yuki Kihara’s works are similarly double-edged, using natural settings as frames for their exploration of environmental and socio-historical issues.
Dick Frizzell’s Still Life in a Glass Vase likewise references a long history, but in this case that of still life painting, in particular the paintings of decadent floral arrangements popular in the Baroque. Consciously underwhelming, Frizzell’s glass vase holds only three roses and is set against a bare, unadorned backdrop. At various stages of blossoming, the flowers hint at familiar Baroque allusions to the inevitable decay and death that accompanies earthly beauty: in this case however, tempered by the artist’s deliberate undermining of this very trope.
The sculptural pieces of Paul Dibble and Hannah Kidd delight in the natural shapes of flower and foliage whereas their elements are abstracted to basic elements of line and form in the sculptural works of Ann Robinson and Neil Dawson. This is pared back even further in Chris Heaphy’s paintings, in which the central motifs are flattened, organic shapes and lines. The viewer constructs an abstracted floral arrangement in an attempt to create meaning from the visual configurations, but Heaphy leaves ample space for meanings to slide past one another.