If these paintings by Mia Brownell and Derrick Guild are any clue, a "new naturalism" has appeared on the scene, convincing by reason of its ironical take on nature and by the exquisiteness of its rendering. It’s a nature "After Eden," to refer to the title of Guild’s exhibition -- a nature that is no longer a paradise, that has fallen from the grace of God, and become a patinated "fiction" of itself, as Guild suggests. Guild paints plants, deceptively beautiful, for they are tromp l’oeil illusions, painted on stained, aged, quasi-vellum canvas, suggesting they are a specimens of a dying nature, even memento mori of a nature that no longer exists -- a nature that is more artistic mirage than vital reality. It’s a nature that gives Brownell "Stomach Acid Dreams," to refer to the title of her exhibition, for it stretches the dialectical imagination with its uncanniness: a simple geometrical construction -- its abstract root, as it were -- that bears, like a cornucopian tree of life, lush fruit, as Still Life with Helix (2010) suggests. What looks like sterile geometry is fertile with organic life.
Brownell’s nature has been "modernized" and demystified, in that its genetic and cellular basis have been spelled out scientifically, but it remains mysterious -- even absurdly miraculous -- for it continues to produce, with patient inevitability, the fruits of life. But they may be artificial fruit, however real they look: They may be hard to digest because they may have been engineered into existence. Guild’s nature is age-old and past its prime, but lives on in art that shows its ingenious construction, the subtle harmony of its different parts. Neither Brownell nor Guild are sentimental about nature -- they don’t romanticize it -- but rather peculiarly fatalistic about it. Like Lucretius they strip it to its fundamentals, but in his vision of nature the goddess of love sets its matter in creative motion, while theirs is a loveless nature. For all his Democritian reductionism, Lucretius still had a sense of the wonder of living nature, which survives as nostalgic wonder in Brownell and Guild. Their naturalism suggests that there is nothing left to wonder about in nature, however miraculously vital we unconsciously feel it is. Nature has lost its wonderfulness in modernity, and we mourn for that loss, and for nature, as well as the loss of our capacity to wonder. Nature is contaminated with doubt in their works, however vividly present. In their different ways, they dissect its corpse, as Brownell’s painting of a dissected animal, its guts brutally exposed, and Guild’s scalpel-like precisionism, suggest.
Guild’s paintings are modeled on the botanical paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Nature was different then. It was viewed – appreciated -- with the clear-eyed intelligence of Enlightenment curiosity. For all their illustrational quality, their clarity conveys a certain respect, even reverence for the plants, meticulously described in every precious last detail, as though they were sacred creations. His is a pre-industrialized nature, inviolate, however probed with incisively inquisitive eyes and preserved in artistic amber. All the plants grow on Ascension Island, where Guild spent almost two years -- hence Ascension Plant[s], the title of the series (I, 2007; II-IV, 2008; V, 2010). They are presumably the "three small indigenous plants" that naturally grow there, however peculiarly de-naturalized by what Guild calls his "hybridizing" treatment of them. That is, he fuses their observed presence on the island with their representational presence in the old botanical paintings, suggesting they are relics of a nature that is no longer pristine. As Guild wryly notes, "the island’s rainforest has been deliberately man-made over the last 250 years." It is a colonized nature or artificial paradise. Ascension Island was colonized by the British, and remains a British dependency, suggesting that Guild, a Scotsman, is criticizing English colonialism, including the colonization of Scotland, a dependency struggling to be independent, and recently granted its own Parliament. (In a building funded by the Scottish actor Sean Connery, a militant Scotish nationalist.) Guild painted the fauna -- a turtle and fish -- as well as the flora of this pseudo-Eden in the middle of nowhere (suggesting like utopia it is a fantasy of perfection) -- but these paintings are less poignantly convincing and majestic than his Ascension Plant paintings, all masterpieces.
In some paintings Brownell juxtaposes still life objects with what might be called abstract representations of dynamic natural processes -- the "inner" scientific reality of nature in opposition to its "outer" appearance. Still Life with Cell Signal and Still Life with Chemical Synthesis (both 2010), are strong examples. In other works she juxtaposes different kinds of still life objects, some morbidly absurd, as in Still with Meat Flower (2010), some more familiar, as in Still Life with Apricot and Pear (2010). In all her works she sets up a tension between "expressionistic gestural" and static geometrical forms -- forms in process, and that seem spontaneously self-generating, and "finished" forms that sometimes have a waxen, sour, or muted look. Still Life with Fire (Prelude), Still life with Sleeping Cock, and Still with Gastric Pepticide (all 2010) are examples. The juxtaposition of opposites gives the works a hybrid look. All have an air of studied ambiguity, and some seem like personal allegories, as Still Life with Break (Up) from Adam (2010) suggests. Many are small, intimate "close-ups," and all have an undertone of violence -- lyricized but still provocative -- as though Brownell was raging at the mutating and mutated nature she often shows. It is twisted on the inside, as the DNA helix perversely suggests, which often makes it look surreally absurd on the outside.
Brownell’s paintings are about the bizarre look nature has when seen from a scientific perspective, that is, reductively understood in scientific terms: They are about the estranging, unnatural effect the scientific conception of nature has on the appreciative perception of it. No mystical union with Brownell’s scienticized nature is possible. It is not clear from her painting that hybrid postmodern (and traditional modern) art is any more appreciative of nature than science -- any less exploitive of it than science. Indeed, art seems to have capitulated to science in modernity, which is why it no longer takes pleasure in nature, nor finds beauty in it, for the beauty of the Guild’s plants is fading, just as his paintings of them have the faded look of old textbook illustrations, however esthetically magnified into glorious art, a distant if evocative and enjoyable memory of a once gloriously mythical nature.
Mia Brownell, "Stomach Acid Dreams," Sept. 10-Oct. 16, 2010, at Sloan Fine Art, 128 Rivington Street, New York, N.Y. 10002
Derrick Guild, "After Eden," Sept. 10-Oct. 20, 2010, at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street New York, N.Y. 10128
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.