As grass grazed my ankles and a river came into view, I thought, “How can you improve upon this?” I was entering Wave Hill, a 26-acre public garden and cultural center in the Bronx, to see Figuring the Floral, a group show featuring artists who make portraits, abstract paintings, and sculptures out of flowers, or incorporate flowers into their portraits. Why add flowers, I wondered, to an already bucolic manmade garden?
The limitations of my thinking were obvious from the moment I saw the outdoor installation “El Dorado – The New Forty-Niners” (2019) by Cecile Chong, down a hill from the main exhibit in the Glyndor Gallery. Finding Chong’s installation — comprised of dozens of individual sculptures, surrounded by Wave Hill’s existing stone garden — was like stumbling across an altar in the woods, or even witnessing a private ritual only for the sculptures. Chong has painted her fiberglass and resin sculptures orange, pink, yellow, and purple, and arranged them in four circles. Each sculpture resembles both a blooming rose and and an open mouth, lining up for communion. They are reminders that flowers help us visualize and understand birth, death, and the cycles of life.
The indoor portion of the piece, which includes two of these sculptures, cast in gold and surrounding a gumball machine dispensing miniature versions of the sculptures for the visitor to keep, is less moving. It has an element of whimsy, the surprising pleasure of getting a free toy, as enjoyable in my 30s as it was when I was five. As with most toys that come out of a machine, however, that pleasure is fleeting.
Bundith Phundombatlert’s project “Sunny Garden in Blue: Stories from the Carribean to Brooklyn” (2018-present), collects stories from six men and women, all immigrants, about plants that have had significant meaning in their lives. Phundombatlert juxtaposed his drawings of the participants with scientific drawings and diagrams of the plants, and the stories. The diagrams and white text on a blue background recall high school textbooks. The stories themselves, as well as the thought of what these plants have seen and even survived, is powerful and worth sharing; their installation in a gallery setting is less so.
But these are minor quibbles compared to the surprises in store. In Lina Iris Viktor’s mixed-media painting “Second” (2017-18), a Black woman with a blue bob haircut is wearing a black mask. She’s in a seated position, but seems to be floating above the floor. Her side-eyed gaze radiates a powerful combination of seduction, contempt, and boredom. She has gilded angel wings, and holds a flower.
Across the room is Simonette Quamina’s “Confirmation in Victoria’s Regine” (2018), a collaged print on a canvas shaped like a jagged puzzle piece. The gray-scale piece is full of spiky plants, or small trees whose roots could probably curl tightly enough around ankles to trip anyone who dares to walk amid them.
More menace greeted me around the corner, in a rope with the world’s creepiest hair clip cinching the center. In Diana Sofia Lozano’s “SubRosa” (2019), the thorny, green stems of roses became claws. You won’t find relief in the petals either; thick and velvety, they resemble a mouth that could swallow the viewer. Every part of this flower inspires fear: The hair clip resembles a noose, perhaps for a victim choked by femininity.
Other works are more ambiguous, and, in some cases, seemed inscrutable to me. Derrick Adams’s paint-and-textile collage, “A Figure Walking Into the Light 24” (2018), is a quasi-cubist profile of a Black man wearing a flower-print shirt. He appears to be immersed in contemplation, melancholy but determined. William Villalongo uses velvet as his canvas for “Brother, Brother” (2019). Small slashes in the velvet reveal multiple floral, plant, and insect motifs underneath; I saw daisy petals, geodes, statues, and African masks. Glimpsing the images beneath the surface feels like embarking on an archeological dig.
The works in Figuring the Floral start a conversation, collaborate, and even merge with Wave Hill’s flowers. As the website notes, the life cycle of flowers reflects that of humans. In both we see sorrowful death and joyous growth.
Figuring the Floral continues at Wave Hill (West 249th Street and Independence Avenue, Riverdale, New York) through December 1. The exhibition was curated by Eileen Jeng Lynch.