Exhibitions run until 22 September 2018 Hastings Community Arts Gallery Parlour Projects, Hastings By Rosheen FitzGerald
As the season turns, Hastings is awash with flowers, from the surrounding orchards, newly burst into bloom, to the Blossom Festival that will culminate in Saturday’s celebratory parade through the streets. Hastings’ galleries are not immune to the allure of such seasonal bounty. Both Arts Inc. Heretaunga and Parlour Projects feature floral works by female artists – Rosamund Stewart and Lizzie Beere’s multimedia show, A Botanical Calling at the former and Billie Culy’s photographic collection, Windows, at the latter.
A Botanical Calling consciously hearkens to whakapapa as its starting point, featuring and paying homage to both artists’ matrilineal tradition of creativity with a floricultural bent. Stewart’s mother’s hand-painted china plates, grandmother’s botanical oil painting, and great aunt’s pottery vase are on display; as are Beere’s great aunt’s oil depicting hydrangeas, and a broken vase bequeathed by her mother, repaired by the artist using the Japanese technique of kinsugi, or repairing with gold. These anchor the exhibition – providing a reference point for everything we thought we knew about floral art, before blowing our assumptions out of the water with their own contemporary works. It’s a genre that is easy to dismiss, along with the female artists that produce it, as mawkish, chocolate boxy fluff, qualitatively discrete from serious art works tackling weighty themes by serious (male) artists. But when we contextualise the era and environment in which they were produced, and the creative, social and economic capital that they generated for the artists, we can better appreciate their value, their quiet revolt.
Culy too, though she does not so consciously allude to it, is nonetheless steeped in artistic heritage. You’ve definitely seen her mother, Leanne Culy’s painted hoe whakatere, and her father, photographer Brian Culy, set her on the path to her craft. Her choice of objects for her still-life compositions – the pastel pink melamine tea tray; the cane-handled, conical-frustum-shaped teapot; the range of printed and embroidered handkerchiefs – nod to a well-fossicked mid-century home, yet her palette and the whimsy of their arrangement are fixed in the now. Her tulips sag on too long stems and her bouquets give the middle finger to the principles of flower arranging – clearly she is more concerned with shape and form, the play of dark and light, than in creating something aesthetically perfect and bland. The ripple of a curtain, the shadow cast by a mesh plastic laundry basket, the folds that remain in an unironed cloth give texture to the works. The eponymous Windows are visible as the light source in all but a few, their mullions casting shadows across the frame.
Lizzie Beere is also a student of light. Her paintings create the impression of bunches of flowers – thickly smeared globs of acrylic against a blue-grey wash that fades before it meets the edges of the canvas. The colours mix in the eye, creating a dynamism that needs to be viewed at a distance. Her perfectly smooth photographic prints contrast beautifully in topography, but are spiritually kindred – subtle studies in light and shade. Their grand scale, as with Culy’s prints, are reminiscent of the works of grand priestess of feminist floral art, Georgia O’Keeffe, who said, “I’ll make them big…People will be startled; they’ll have to look at them.”
O’Keeffe’s work is also responsible for the conflation of flowers – the reproductive part of the plant – with sex organs. It’s a charge she pushes back on the salacious eye of the beholder but it’s an association that has stuck, tied up in language and euphemism. There is an unmistakably vulvic quality to Stewart’s sculptures, particularly Summer Kowhai and Orchid Slipper; and to the titular Segments of Culy’s piece, that lend them a powerful and empowering bravery. There is a similar sensuality to Beere’s work, particularly Valentino, which captures a close-up chrysanthemum in muted tones, drops of moisture pregnant with possibility.
Stewart’s body of work, in its expanse, epitomises the spirit of the season as well as its subject matter. The range of techniques and media she employs speak to a creativity that knows no bounds, and a flurry of activity mirrored in the busyness of the natural world. Bronze and spray paint, totara and Perspex, repurposed vintage miscellany all have life breathed into them by the artist. There is a joyful exuberance to the electric inks that bloom on a shining circular forms; to the neon upcycled acrylic moulded into organic shapes of flowers and butterflies.
In pride of place, with its face to the street, Wherever I Look I See Flowers encompasses the droll glee that is carried through the exhibit. An antique perimeter painted electric blue and adorned with artificial blooms at first sparks interest. When, with the aid of an accompanying illustrated manual, we learn that it is an instrument for measuring peripheral vision, intrigue turns to delight. This jubilance – in art, in the waking world around us – is, at its essence, what these women’s works celebrate. In the words of Georgia O’Keeffe, “it is beautiful and pure and very intensely alive.”