THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS

THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS

The Secret Life of Plants at Freight and Volume--a group show curated by Jennifer Coates and Nick Lawrence--tows the line with dozens of summer group exhibitions but manages to surge ahead. 

The Secret Life of Plants, Freight and Volume Gallery

The Secret Life of Plants, Freight and Volume Gallery

This show imparts a sense of urgency from curators Coates and Lawrence, who seem to be reacting both to the current political disruption we are absorbing in the Trump Administration and the text The Secret Life of Plants, a book published in 1973 that explores the nuanced ways in which humans connect with and react to plants. 

It is clear that Coates and Lawrence felt it was timely and necessary in the midst of this uncomfortable political climate to use a steady subject in art--the plant--as a muse for a more complex and charged narrative.  This exhibition brings us together to reflect on over 40 different ways that plants have seeped into the visual language and content of artists across age, race, and gender. 

 
Russell Tyler, BPYL, 2017, oil on canvas, 54x48 in. Courtesy of the artist Denny Gallery, NYC

Russell Tyler, BPYL, 2017, oil on canvas, 54x48 in. Courtesy of the artist Denny Gallery, NYC

 

More than plants, Russell Tyler’s painting makes me think of a sort of painting neuro-plasticity: the formation of new cells, their change over time and the electricity of new synapses connecting.  Perhaps the growth of new life: in a wonderfully lucid and organic way, this painting succeeds in achieving the sort of mystery and psychology that the show’s title offers.  Not to mention that Tyler’s paint chops are in full force--this piece shines as the star of the show. 

My eyes spent the most time focusing on a painting in the back room by Alec Egan, Flowers.  The tone and pace of it struck me in so many direct and effortless ways.  Egan’s painting sings with confidence, asserting itself as just what it is, offering no tropes or escape techniques.  Sweet and sensitive tonal shifts, strange cabbage-like plant forms, and ‘70s hotel wallpaper make this painting direct, refreshing, human and beautiful. 

 
Alec Egan, Flowers, 2015, oil on canvas, 30x30 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

Alec Egan, Flowers, 2015, oil on canvas, 30x30 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

 

Jennifer Coates’s other-worldly painting, Large Houseplant, encompasses both the subject-hood of this show and the ephemeral magic that plants give us.  It’s haunting and beautiful in a way that makes me think of her food paintings; it’s delicious, but from what I gather, not the kind of plant that is edible.  It seems dangerously beautiful, so I am urged to stand back and admire with caution. 

 
Jennifer Coates, Large Houseplant, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 72x60 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

Jennifer Coates, Large Houseplant, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 72x60 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

 

Benjamin King presents a green, black and yellow painting surging with texture and life.  Simple orange forms that may act as mushrooms without any representational finesse fade from foreground to background with ease.  This painting is one of the most rewarding to gaze at, and also reflects the mystery of the show’s title ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ with its strange sense of space, surface and marks. 

 
Benjamin King, Poppers, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 25x20 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

Benjamin King, Poppers, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 25x20 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

 

Sangram Majumdar’s painting, paper tree, commands attention with its scale and seemingly fresh-cut triangular forms that pop off the surface while an almost theatrical warm glow confuses the space from above.  There is patience and care in the paint application and a sort of playful story that to me references childhood, ritual and games. 

 
Sangram Majumdar, paper tree, 2013, oil on linen, 72x66 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

Sangram Majumdar, paper tree, 2013, oil on linen, 72x66 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

 

Christina de Miguel’s piece is refreshing, partially provisional and entirely direct. Her painting, divided into four quadrants, has a sort of outsider confidence and referential psychology that I can’t help but adore.

 
Cristina de Miguel, Things in Squares, 2017, acrylic and oil on canvas, 61x48 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

Cristina de Miguel, Things in Squares, 2017, acrylic and oil on canvas, 61x48 in. Courtesy of the artist and Freight and Volume Gallery

 

Curating is a labor of love, so I appreciate this show for its generosity, intention and spirit.  All 40 artists present work in such vastly different ways, and that should be praised.  In their curation, Coates and Lawrence aren’t striving for a homogenous survey on plants, but rather a diverse and inclusive language in which plants, psychology and politics have become one subject.  This show also has a brilliant essay by Scott Indrisek in the catalog, which is a must-read and purchase. 

It is a packed exhibition; I only wish I had seen the net cast a little wider, perhaps with work from Anna Valdez--the queen of plant painting, who is based on the West Coast--or even some children’s art, to fuel the political and psychological energy this show imparts. 

The Secret Life of Plants runs through September 3rd at Freight and Volume Gallery, 97 Allen Street, New York, NY. 

- Catherine Haggarty