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In many urban areas, you’re as likely to experience representations of plants as the real thing, from plastic facsimiles rooted in windows, to pine-scented candles. Artist Anne Percoco has created an herbarium of over 70 of these imaginary plants, with specimens collected from tea boxes, greeting cards, fabric designs, beauty salon ads, and other human-made sources.
“For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by fake representations of plant life, especially those used for commercial or decorative purposes,” Percoco told Hyperallergic. “These range from abstract little leaf icons used on packaging to indicate the product is eco-friendly in some way, to leaf and tree-shaped, chemical-laden air fresheners, to fake Christmas trees, which are abundant this time of year. Once I started looking for them, I saw them everywhere.”
Her interpretations of this found flora are now installed in a gallery at Casa Colombo in Jersey City. Parallel Botany: The Study of Imaginary Plants even includes some foliage lifted from an embroidered curtain in this New Jersey Italian cultural center. “In the near-absence of plant life in our cities, parallel botany is meeting some of our human needs for contact with plants,” Percoco stated. “For this show, I extrapolated these fake leaves into whole plants or parts of plants and displayed these works on paper, which are a mixture of drawing and collage, in the format of an herbarium.”
Percoco anointed them with species names that nod to their origins. “Felis cibum,” for instance, was discovered on pet food packaging, with silhouettes of cats and dogs embedded in the autumnal patterns of its leaves; “Mentha puntus,” with its pixelated trifoliate leaves, was sourced from a mint tea box. At a glance, many of the Parallel Botany plants appear unremarkable. It’s only through a closer look that you notice their strange bending of reality or unnatural colors.
This exhibition was sparked in part by Leo Lionni’s 1976 Parallel Botany, which wryly chronicles a fictional history of studying imaginary plants. As Lionni writes, plants in this parallel ecology are “real because we want them to be.” While for years Percoco has collected and catalogued fake leaves, it was after coming across the book that she approached these specimens in the context of this concocted branch of botany.
Much of Percoco’s practice has engaged with the connections between people and nature, such as the 2016 #TreeSpeech project which mapped and tweeted on behalf of Jersey City trees, encouraging a conversation about the local tree canopy. The ongoing Next Epoch Seed Library, a collaboration with artist Ellie Irons, is a seed bank concentrated on weedy species which may be able to thrive in a polluted future. Parallel Botany similarly asks viewers to consider their daily relationships to plants at a time when climate change and environmental loss promise a very different future for our planet’s nature.
Joining the new herbarium at Casa Colombo is a small garden growing actual plants: live specimens of Carduus pycnocephalus (Italian thistle). It’s a dynamic plant, with fuzzy leaflets that grow into large spiny leaves that sprout bright fuchsia flowers. “They look prehistoric,” Percoco said, adding that there’s a “visual dialogue happening between this real plant and the imaginary ones populating the gallery walls.”
The thistles also reference Casa Colombo itself, which was founded by Italian immigrants in 1936. It’s a plant native to Italy, but is now considered invasive in the United States. As a plant that became a weed in its relocation, it echoes the exhibition’s ideas about displacement. These parallel plants suggest that even as nature is pushed out, plants will stay with us in augmented forms. Hand soap that smells like moss, or astroturf that simulates grass, will fill in the voids. And with each transformation, a new species of human-designed plant will germinate.
Parallel Botany: The Study of Imaginary Plants continues at Casa Colombo (380 Monmouth Street, Jersey City) through February 26, 2019.