Famously reserved when expressing their affection for almost anything besides booze and big breasts, the English also make an exception when it comes to pets and plants. English people, even the hip ones, love flowers, so it comes as no surprise that this month’s streak of sunny days has been accompanied by a veritable orgy of fauna and flora blooming in city art galleries -- though the blooms tend to be artistically abject, of course.
Maaike Schoorel at Maureen Paley
Flowers have always been a poet’s metaphor for the failure of memory and death. At Maureen Paley, the fading of cherished memories is the theme of Maaike Schoorel’s deceptively pale oil paintings. Seemingly all white, marked by soft washes of color, her large-scale paintings initially resemble slightly soiled Robert Rymans, but up close they reveal themselves to be nearer in theme and emotional register to Pierre Bonnard.
The exhibition’s title, "Bathing, dining, garden, father, daughters, beach, bed," suggests that Schoorel’s white surfaces bear hazy traces of intimate events, like make-up stains on a white garment or the remnants of a candy-rose licked off a petite-four cake. With titles such as Ada and Her Daughters in the Garden or Bathing in Rochebrune, the paintings invite investigation, and gently recall the lovely line by J.M. Barrie, the Scottish author of Peter Pan, who observed, "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December."
Works by Schoorel, who is Dutch, have been purchased by Charles Saatchi, Mario Testino and other discerning collectors. When Schoorel is not making ethereal, Proustian paintings, she is the singer for hip London-based post-punk band, Skill 7 Stamina 12.
James Aldridge at David Risley
In distinct contrast to Schoorel’s almost silent paintings are the new works by the Royal College of Art-educated painter James Aldridge. For his exhibition at David Risley Gallery on Viner Street, Aldridge presents the show's title, "A Murder of Crows," in the crowded, heavy font usually embossed on cheap paper-back murder mysteries and true crime thrillers. The real-life inspiration for the artist’s ornate gothic imagery was the time he spent isolated in a Swedish forest toiling to a strictly heavy-metal soundtrack. Aldridge only recently resurrected his adolescent adoration for heavy-metal, but he has since become a born-again fan of its pounding sound -- as well as its accompanying dark iconography and surprising sincerity.
In his two large-scale paintings and one black-paper cutout installation covering a gallery wall, Aldridge creates a morbid world filled both with images of death and bushes of pretty violets. Raining Blood I and Raining Blood II, the show’s sister paintings, feature crows with blood dribbling from their sharp beaks, pyramids of bleached skulls, spider webs, weeds and other sinister imagery, intermingled with sprinklings of little fuchsia flowers -- all rendered with the cool, graphic craftsmanship of painters like Julian Opie or Lisa Ruyter. Alridge’s crisp yet unexpected palette includes wine, pink and mauve alongside blood red, black and steel grey.
A Murder of Crows, the all-black paper-cutout covering the gallery’s back wall, is a beautifully elaborate lace-work-like montage of landscape imagery dotted with skulls and other human remains. With delicately Rococo cut-outs and stylized paintings, Aldridge’s installation is as evocative of the Grimm Brothers and timeless folk tales as it is of the now-uncool rock subgenre.
Andrew Mania at Vilma Gold
A similarly morbid use of flowers can be found in Andrew Mania’s installation at Vilma Gold, incorporating his private collection of black-and-white photographs taken from 1932-64 by the late novelist, critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten was born in 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He moved to New York, where he first worked as an assistant music critic for the New York Times and then became the paper’s first dance critic and a highly regarded portrait photographer, shooting some of the greatest artists and intellectuals of his era, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, Bessie Smith and Gertrude Stein.
Van Vechten was also an avid and influential supporter of African-American art and the key participants in the Harlem scene, many of whom he photographed. He actively promoted black artists and writers through his work and wrote about his experiences in Harlem in his highly controversial 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven, which was set in Harlem’s jazz clubs and cabarets. None of this information is evident in Mania’s installations. Instead, Mania focuses the viewer’s attention on his own personal, romantic, nostalgic and slightly adolescent admiration for the artist’s images.
The 32-year old Mania, a Chelsea College of Art grad, is known as something of a curiosities collector. In addition to the Van Vechten material, his output includes loving pre-war-style illustrations of tragically hip youths, plus sculptural objects, photographs, videos and film footage shot throughout London. Last year at John Connelly Presents, Mania constructed his first New York solo show around his intimate and conflicted relationship to his family mythology, particularly a story his mother tells about seeing a Yeti in a Russian forest while fleeing Poland during WW II, and stories told about his father, a German paratrooper who was said to have helped rescue Mussolini from an Alpine prison.
In other exhibitions, Mania has presented Old Master drawings or vintage photographs as fetish objects, portraying himself as an odd, possibly obsessive character who is permitting us to marvel at his treasures. At Vilma Gold, in one piece hung against the wall, a small photograph of a handsome young man is mounted on an unvarnished plywood board, covered by a triangular metal cage. Woven through the thin metal slats are pieces of scrap wood and a small dried sprig of violets.
Violets also decorate two handsome twin pastel portraits of a young man resembling Ian Curtis, which are displayed alongside identical black lacquered sculptures of elephants, while small cages with Van Vechten photographs behind mini-bouquets of dusty violets are topped with lit red light bulbs.
Another red bulb rests on a rough plywood plank nailed to the wall where Mania has placed a pretty still-life painting of a Poinsettia and a red unicorn figurine, over which another painting hangs, this time a surrealist image of a man’s profile embedded in the silhouette of a woman with pink lipstick and a sculptured 1940s hairdo. The overall effect is one of unexplained mysteries, which is partly why these curiously constructed cryptic shrines are so unsettling and completely compelling.
Nigel Cooke at South London Gallery
The flora is up to no good in Nigel Cooke’s "A Portrait of Everything" at the South London Gallery. In his 10 new paintings, the Manchester-born Cooke depicts urban landscapes where weather beaten walls meet rocks, broken bottles and weeds. With arresting skill -- he paints as if Clara Peeters or Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder had devoted themselves to depicting the backs of busted-up buildings -- Cooke takes these pitiful settings to creepy, captivating artistic heights.
Cooke’s landscapes are confections of considerable originality, shallow back-alley stages painted Photorealist style, the foreground littered with what seem to be actual cast-off objects and artificial plants while the backdrop is populated by creatures rendered as flat line drawings.
The ambiguous narrative drawn on the wall on the left side of Fun shows an anthropomorphized four-petaled daisy sucking on a cigarette as it overlooks a group of humans, dressed vaguely like druids, who gather outside a barn door. While in our current natural order, humans usually impose their will on nature, here the plant looks like the overlord and the people are pathetically puny in comparison.
County Club is a magnificently bright painting full of the sharp, sun-soaked colors of a Miami afternoon. The yellow-orange light off of the concrete illuminates the off-putting sights of a man (outlined against a wall) embracing a massive, sad-looking banana and a pretty poesy tipping on its stem and vomiting over a weed unfortunately drawn next to it.
Yet, while the flowers are not acting pretty, the paintings are gorgeous and just as the graffiti injects beauty into his imaginary scenes, Cooke’s ability as an artist renders ugly spaces and urban trash as poetic and poignant as the fruits and fading flowers painted by his Flemish master predecessors.
Jacques Minki at the Approach
The innovative Approach Gallery in East London usually smells like an English pub, and in fact is located over one, but in one of the most simple, yet genuinely lovely exhibitions currently in the city, Mauritian-born and London-based artist Jacques Nimki fills the gallery with the sights and scents of spring. For his second solo show there, Nimki offers his version of the traditional 17th-century "Florilegiums," a Latin term which means "flower book" and refers specifically to albums of floral illustration commissioned by wealthy landowners to showcase and archive the most magnificent and therefore highest-status blossoms in their personal gardens.
Nimki similarly constructs his wall-sized florilegiums as records of particular gardens. He begins by researching and inventing facts about the various plants he encounters and then illustrates this information through intricate large-scale laminated "maps" which combine real pressed flowers, dainty floral stickers, drawings made on location using a basic program run on a Palm Pilot, and drawings copied from guides for botanists and "How to Draw" hobbyists.
Though they are undeniably beautiful and a touchingly tender brand of memento mori, these florilegiums are enough like summer-camp crafts to seem something that a parent, rather than a nobleman, might proudly display. But the real impact of the show comes not the florilegiums themselves, but rather from the generous and playful installation that Nimki constructed to present them at the Approach.
In addition to his well-preserved plants, Nimki drew charming, faint pencil drawings of single plants and buds on the gallery wall, carpeted the gallery floor with a weave of coconut hair and soil, and sewed into the netting examples of the most common weeds found in any inner-city environment, which he propagated from seeds and which are watered twice daily by the gallery assistants. Though these little sprouts are directly related to the plants pushing through sidewalk cracks and struggling to survive alongside dilapidated buildings, when they are accumulated on the gallery floor they give off the distinct and delicious smell of nature in bloom.
Most urbanites over-look such herbage, but Nimki’s odoriferous addition to his florilegium display presents both his work and nature’s in the best, most tactile way, and the intoxicating scent heralds all the simple happiness that comes with spring, even in London.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.