Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Ulterior Garden Motifs
Fionn Meade

Boys and Flowers attempts to tie together loose tendrils, balancing an assortment of photographs, prints, and paintings—all obviously floral in theme—with more nuanced and challenging video, sound, and mural installations. While the more discrete works on view provide a pleasant traipse, offering such elegant stops as Robert Mapplethorpe’s vintage gelatin print Tulip (1984), alongside an unusual cactus flower study by Morris Graves, and an eventual encounter with such clever quips as Amir Zaki’s still life photograph Ugly Weed Quite Dead, Same Weed Just Pulled (2002), it is the installation works that bring the exhibition’s theme to life.

Drawn as they are from Bill and Ruth True’s formidable collection, exhibitions at Western Bridge (open since 2004) showcase works in video, photography, and other media from an impressive international roster of artists (including works by Shirin Neshat, Tacita Dean, Rosemarie Trockel, and Christian Marclay). To date, all have been themed group shows that often revolve around one or more specific commissions. The centrepiece of Boys and Flowers is Paul Morrison’s Mesophyte (2006), a black-and-white acrylic mural that inhabits all four walls of the main gallery with his characteristic schematics of oppositional landscape effects. Installed to be a complement for two future exhibitions as well, Morrison’s Northwest-inflected fantasy seems a bit toned down in comparison with his other painting installations of recent years, but nevertheless suits his given references. Here, the land-meets-sea vantage of the region is mirrored as black evergreens reflect in silhouette at an invisible water’s edge; an isolated stump iconically implies the haunt of repeated clear-cuts; and pictorial scale and style compete in Morrison’s penchant for dividing the viewer’s attentions with botanically accurate foxglove playing off cartoon fern fronds and against Warholesque flower heads to skew any easy continuity or single perspective.

Stephen Vitiello’s aural landscape, by contrast, offers a densely layered, if invisible, forest canopy. Transporting the listener deep into the Amazonian jungle, Hea (2003) explores the synaesthetic nature of augury as practiced by the Yanomami Indians of Brazil. Having travelled to a remote village as part of a 2003 Cartier Foundation exhibition, Yanomami: The Spirit of the Forest, Vitiello joined video artists Gary Hill, Tony Oursler, and nine other Western artists in creating responses to the ritual practices and everyday realities of a remarkably isolated and intact native culture. As he follows a local shaman into the forest with his sound equipment, the artist is present while visions of the future are plucked from the cacophony of the jungle by the practitioner. What makes the work so dynamic is its blindness to the portent of any possible discoveries made; rather, Vitiello offers only the textured response of an outsider’s presence amidst such primal flora and fauna in his layering of bird sounds with wind and clamorous cicadas. As a result, the 5.1 surround sound composition alternates a light, vertical feeling of sun with the guttural punctuation of the shaman’s nocturnal communing. This tact eschews any attempt at arranging profound insight where there is none and uses more than seventeen hours of continuous recordings to create a more meditative and measured ambience. Vitiello knowingly includes a hammock in the installation, slung up to remind listeners of the outsider’s temporary and privileged residency. Hea plays incisively on the tensions implied in the original project’s flirtation with faux ethnography and gracefully avoids the overreaching that befell some of the other projects.

Far from the in-the-field vibe of Vitiello’s trip, Kutlug Ataman’s four-channel video installation, The Four Seasons of Veronica Read (2002), embraces a hothouse approach to its subject. Based in part on the artist’s own interest in hipeastrum bulbs, the work meticulously constructs the private life of an obsessive Amaryllis bulb collector living in London; chronicling a year’s daily routine in this eccentric woman’s flat, Ataman is often transparently present in the piece, occasionally prompting his subject toward yet another monologue concerning the delicate miracles of her collection. As Ataman has commented elsewhere, “I allow my subjects to talk because only in actual speech can we witness this amazing re-writing of one’s history and reality.”1 And it is not only Veronica re-writing herself into everyday symbiosis with her lovelies, but Ataman attaching himself in a similar act of excessive attentiveness to a kindred yet opposite character: he, a Turkish filmmaker and video artist willing to travel extensively in search of the perfect subject, and she, an apartment bound guardian and caretaker allergic to the very treasures she is so devoted to. Ataman’s undaunted portrait of psychological transference creates a sense of claustrophobic empathy for a woman’s myopic desires.

The acuity of Ataman’s gaze betrays the unfortunate flat-footedness of some works included in the exhibition. Providing the show’s title is a video piece from California artist Kirsten Stoltmann. Boys and Flowers (2000) fades from the waif posturing of skater boys careening in slow motion across a ramp in the artist’s studio to an occasional glimpse at wildflower clusters. Loosely edited together with an ambient guitar loop as accompaniment, the artist’s effort at a kind of offhand reverie feels dated. Likewise, some of the other works included stray into more tangential and less rewarding areas, begging a question perhaps not asked often enough of how to best arrange a diversity of work within an exhibition showcasing such a large collection. In the case of Western Bridge—with its explicit commitment to time-based media and photography at the fore and a non-profit gallery structure in place—it is hard not to wonder if a focus on multiple works from fewer artists might not strengthen its theme-driven platform. Perhaps arranging for an occasional loan to fill out a given artist’s showing could allow for groupings that avoid the sampler feel that can often overtake exhibitions drawn from a collection. For even with a misstep here and there, Boys and Flowers underscores the high quality and seriousness of Western Bridge and the True’s laudable commitment to commissioning new works as an integral part of each exhibition. Upcoming projects even promise an occasional shift from the group theme principle, as there are plans to give the majority of the building over to renowned sound artist Bill Fontana in the coming year and Christian Marclay’s sublime Video Quartet (2002) will act as anchor for another eagerly anticipated exhibit.

  1. Kutlug Ataman, “A Thousand Words,” Artforum (February, 2003).


About the Author

Fionn Meade is a writer and curator living in Seattle whose writing has recently appeared in Bomb Magazine, NYFA Current, and The Stranger among other venues. Nocturnes, a curatorial project exploring animation works by four artists working from their studio practice, will open at the Boise Art Museum next year. He also curates programs at the Henry Art Gallery.

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