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On Exhibit: a gallery full of flowers

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Shivering, huddled by the heater, wrapped in scarves and afghans. Renting movies, checking the windchill factor, ordering out, cursing and whining, buying Chapstick. These are the popular methods of fighting extreme cold. Another possible antidote: stop by your local florist and rush home with some fresh-cut tulips, roses, or irises, shipped from a more humane climate, full of color, warmth, the promise of light at the end of the tunnel of winter.

Randy Alexander, who believes strongly in this antidote, is curating "The Flower Show" at the Betsy Rosenfield Gallery, 212 W. Superior (renamed the "Betsy Rosenfield Greenhouse" for the occasion). Alexander has gathered work by some 40 contemporary artists in a wide variety of media, all of whom, in one way or another, exploit the flower and its connotations. At first glance, this wild English garden of a show promises a warm breath of beauty--decorative, placid, and predictable--but upon further investigation, the floral motif begins to stretch its mundane definition, expanding our understanding of the possible meanings in petals, stamens, pistils, leaves, and stems.

Several artists in the show do render the flower exquisitely, paying homage to its beauty. Realist painters Janet Fish and Paul Wonner include flowers in their crystal-clear still lifes. Idelle Weber paints the iris, fondly, over and over in a long series of small, identical oils. Nancy Mitchnick paints peonies, exploiting the paint's color and texture to express the organic vitality of the flower.

Botanically speaking, the flower bears the reproductive promise of the plant, represents its continuation. Robert Mapplethorpe, known for his explicit photographs illustrating humanity's preoccupation with reproduction, shows his full understanding of the flower's sexy potential in some very sensual flower portraits. Joseph Ziolkowski also makes this connection in his black-and-white photographs, which elegantly juxtapose plant with human genitalia. Tom Denlinger's Pistils and Stamens is a kinetic sculpture of flower parts, which humorously interact in a sort of plant courting ritual. Bonnie Lucas further anthropomorphizes the flower in her watercolors, combining it surreally with the human female figure to comment ironically on the reproductive oppression of the female--human and floral.

There's an element of cruelty in cut flowers, so pretty in the crystal vase, but which have been cropped in their prime, made impotent for the buyer's enjoyment. Chicago photographer Caroline Ausman seems to comment on this notion: an androgynous punk, with earring and eye makeup, smiles glibly against a background of fabric patterned with decorative flowers. Mark Jackson paints disembodied heads, floating in terror, surrounded by beautiful garlands of flowers. In Stephen Lack's Judgement of the Roses a threatening bloodred rose dwarfs a dead man. In this image of the flower, its thorns show.

The traditional idea of flowers, with their hopeful warmth, permeates the culture, but commercial repetition can vitiate that idea. Don Baum uses flower-imprinted linoleum to make little houses, commenting on the false sense of well-being in our domestic society. Andy Warhol damned most eloquently designer floral patterns for wallpaper in his flower series of 1964, an example of which is included in this show. Amy Yoes uses artificial flowers, that odd combination of nature and petrochemicals, in a large, baroque collage that presents modern life as a conglomeration of falsehoods.

The flower is precious partly because it will soon wither. In Richard Willenbrink's paintings, beautiful flowers are juxtaposed with severed sheep's heads. Dan Devening paints static tapestry, solemn and deadly, on paper shaped like flowers, lively and potent. Adam Cvijanovic paints epic tableaux wherein flowers join street gangs, allusions to art history, trash, and images from TV as the artist attempts to establish the nature of our culture at a life-and-death moment.

A single flower can evoke an entire history and place. Jack Gilbert pays homage to Manet's last paintings, of colorful floral arrangements, by re-creating them in monotone oil on lead, stripping the images of their color and light in order to reflect on their maker and his failing eyesight. Pam Golden's little photographs of places where flowers grow manage to evoke complex childhood memories in a simple snapshot.

"The Flower Show" coalesces in those pieces that stake some hope in the continuing process of life. Alexis Rockman's Allergies: Bouillabaisse has fetal-looking oysters growing on a tree, with a crab god sanctioning its maturation; it's a kind of trans-species corsage. Work by Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison addresses preserving the ecosystem against chemical pollution. Michael Paha's living installation (with dead flowers and live moths and spiders--creatures that can sustain themselves and even regenerate through the most severe times) provides the final nod--wistful, affirming, but full of trepidation.

Randy Alexander's "The Flower Show" is a lively floral arrangement, full of life, sex, history, and death--more than enough to generate some heat. And it will continue through February 13, with an opening reception Friday, January 15, from 5 to 7 PM. For more information call the Betsy Rosenfield Gallery at 787-8020.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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