In art, is a plant ever just a plant, a flower just a flower?
I suppose the answer is sometimes yes—the bouquet still-life on the wall of the dentist’s office, the floral landscape at the flea market. But for me, the best plant art evokes stranger things, deeper things, perhaps erotic things, as Georgia O’Keeffe scholars remind us.
“Natural State,” a small but mighty exhibition running through mid-April at Arts Warehouse in Delray, pairs two South Florida artists with an affection for painting plants—Jenny Kiker and Evan Sahlman—and like O’Keeffe, there’s more to the stamens and buds than meets the eye. Both see flora through idiosyncratic perspectives and distinctive palettes.
Kiker’s work, by and large, is disarmingly absent of dimensionality. Where one artist might strive for painstaking realism by presenting a leaf covering another stem just so, Kiker’s plants blur into each other but remain on the same plane, like Venn diagrams; rather than admiring a representation and moving on, the spectator can get lost in them the way she might an abstract painting. “Send Me Light” and “Rhaphidophora” are fine examples of this.
There’s a primitivism to Kiker’s clean, fluidly colored paintings, which capture a childlike simplicity with adult sophistication. If Alex Katz painted plants instead of people, the result might look something like “Cymbidium Orchids.” Which isn’t to say her work is without mature meaning; her “Cattleya Orchids” resemble women’s reproductive organs so clearly that even the virginal mind would see the subtext.
Sahlman’s style is rougher, pricklier, and arguably even more subliminal. The agave plant is painted enough to be his muse, and we understand the fascination: The imagery we can read into them is varied. “Agave Americana I” conjures an octopus with many sinuous tentacles; “Agave Americana III” looks positively alien, its leaves pointing this way and that, like the heads of serpents.
Sometimes, he includes figures in his paintings—earthen people who seem to have sprouted from the same forest as the foliage around them. Sahlman is a painter unafraid to leave in doodles and “mistakes”—like the unfinished arm of his title subject “Marta” and the drops of dried paint bleeding on the canvas. He wants us to appreciate the physicality of the medium.
And there’s sex present in Sahlman’s work, too, most explicitly in the paired canvases of “The Flower” and “The Fruit.” The former shows a mysterious bare-backed woman standing next to a blooming agave plant; the latter shows a man looking her way, posing next to phallic cacti. It could be Adam and Eve, or you and your mate; either way, just go with it. If this is the secret life of plants, it’s no wonder they’re so popular.
“Natural State” runs through April 14 at Arts Warehouse, 313 N.E. Third St., Delray Beach. Admission is free. For information, call 561/330-9614 or visit artswarehouse.org.