Spring in Atlanta is a rapturous affair. There’s a sweetness mixed with the heady properties of new growth. One can smell the earth reawakening as color enters the landscape. Jackson Fine Art presents two photographers whose work explores nature in a full bloom of color with earthy, pungent sensibilities. In Eat Flowers and Persephone, respectively, Cig Harvey and Angela West show themselves as artists whose photography expresses their embrace of nature. Both are on view through May 15.
It’s dangerous for women artists to make work that’s all about flowers and picturesque landscapes in full bloom with the sweetness and heaviness of nature. Photos of flowers can so easily be written off as the domain of the feminine, ornamental and decorative and, therefore, excluded from any serious dialogue. Floral subject matter and bucolic landscape in both painting and photography have been snubbed and delegated as second-tier genres. Women artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Judy Chicago have depicted flowers in their work; their art has been partitioned off and delegated to a separate conversation in the art world. Every woman artist who makes work about beauty has been relegated to this platform.
The saturated hues of Cig Harvey’s pigmented color prints, however, beckon us to engage with the imagery. Her close-up viewpoints create a level of intimacy with her subjects that is quite sensual. Some images have the pictorial leanings and slickness of fashion photography but contain rich and undulating textures that lend substance to their content. Black Velvet Petunias (2020), is a close-up view of an array of flowers. The dark blues, blacks and purples create a ruffed pattern that recalls the tactility of black velvet fabric. These blackest of black flowers cover the entire composition, their darkness calling up night air perfumed by open blossoms. The intensity of the curvilinear forms is so euphoric that one can feel the warm breeze of night and the physicality of the floral form.
The intensity of Harvey’s highly saturated hues is also present in such works as Emerald Coat With Dahlia Petals (2019), a photograph of a torso swathed in a heavy garment in phthalocyanine green with a hand near the figure’s body holding a magenta-and-white bloom. In Angel Trumpets (2020), flowers are set against a dark cobalt-blue background whose saturation level is as rich as that of any painting. This photo and others have a dreamlike quality.
White Horse (2020) is a verdant, dark green landscape punctuated by a small sculpture/toy horse that feels quite surreal. The Wind, Scout, Camden, Maine (2020) depicts a young girl in the back seat of a car with wind blowing on her face and her hand raised to block the intensity of the breeze. The photo feels as though it was made in another time, another place.
In addition to her photos, Harvey places short phrases, words or sentences on the wall including one in neon. These recall the work of Tracey Emin and Jenny Holzer but lack their sexual and political references. There’s less than what meets the eye in Harvey’s words and phrases, and it’s unfortunate to see any artist trying to reinvent the wheel.
In Persephone, Angela West has repurposed a body of landscape photographs from 17 years ago through the addition of hand painting that adds a gestural sweep across them. Photographers have been adding pigment to their work since the 19th century when they’d hand-color monochromatic photographs. By using this layer of paint, West adds a color saturation linked with brushstrokes that bring fresh adornment to the work.
These Are Wild Thoughts (2020) has perhaps the most paint and, thus, is the most successful. To this vertical photograph, West has added assertive brushstrokes in soft lilacs, cadmium yellow and warm blues. The staccato marks on the surface are reminiscent of the budding flowers on trees. The work has only a few remnants of the landscape photo beneath the paint — the limbs of a tree in the upper-left-hand corner just coming into bloom, for example.
She Went, Ever Singing (2021) is a 70- x 88-inch color photo of a pink dogwood tree in early spring. The morass of still leafless trees in the distance adds a pleasing liner element. West brings energy to the work by using sweeping blue strokes of paint across the bottom of the landscape.
These two artists aren’t mining new territory with these floral works and landscapes, but their use of saturated color echoes the intensity of the season. Their collective palette is a welcome reminder of the pleasure and beauty of nature. Harvey and West capture the bitter sweetness of spring, the elation of color and the sensuality of nature. In times when everyone can take a pretty picture of a landscape or a flower with their cellphone, it’s challenging for photographers to address a deeper meaning through such imagery.