Paper cuts


Meadow Sweet, Elizabeth Bisbing, gouache, paper, graphite.

Any artist who learns to work in a garden quickly recognizes parallels in the way a plant and a painting grow. It takes time and repetition: fluids (oh, don’t I know), light, and an interaction with random elements all play a role in both forms of creation. As I work with plants I’m constantly reminded of how I work with images: I get something started, I add more of this or less of that, and I prune away at whatever isn’t helping. And what I’m working on tends to grow more slowly than I’d like, requiring a lot of waiting otherwise known as patience. What you’re really doing is guiding, not creating. Looking at a nasturtium bloom or a ripe tomato, after sometimes months of husbanding the plant, can feel exactly as if I’m standing back and gazing happily at a completed painting. (I start dahlia tubers in January, inside the house, and step-by-step transfer them to potting soil and then sometimes larger pots before putting them outside in May or early June. Some even start blooming in the house in May. There are really only a few months I’m not tending dahlias one way or another–from October through January I keep them dormant in the garage.) So, more and more, painting an image of a head of lettuce or a dahlia strikes me as almost the final step in gardening itself. I’m actually just looking, studying, consuming with my eyes, the outcome of continuous labor and care over the course of more than half a year, in the case of the dahlias. And the act of painting one of these plants recapitulates the process of growing it. What I see is beauty, but it’s more than that. There’s always a hint of strangeness in natural forms, which is part of the fascination. Often I  see something like what Michelangelo conveyed in his unfinished Captives, a wrestling with the constraints and obstacles of physical life–every flower and vegetable is, in some respect, at act of overcoming. The flowers that emerge twisted and deformed–qualities echoed in the complex form of a healthy dahlia, which has as many curving planes as a skull–can become just as fascinating as what seems initially more symmetrical and “perfect” in the healthiest flower. What comes through, in nature, again and again, is unity within complexity, how something with so many diverse parts can look utterly simple and coherent. It’s amazing to me that a dahlia can emerge  from a shrunken tuber locked into the ground, as even enormous plants emerge from the tiniest seeds. I look past the beauty of a flower, amazed at how something like this, something this infinitely detailed, can emerge from the skin of that little brown lump underground, swell itself into fat stalks that sometimes rise seven feet into the air, get as large as a cluster of corn stalks, produce dozens of ten-inch flowers and then turn black in the frost and disappear. Paintings are like that flower at the peak of its cycle. You stand there, looking at it, thinking where did that come from? Seriously? How did that get made?

Many of these reflections and experiences influenced the way I appreciated Elizabeth Bisbing‘s exhibition of flower mosaics at Soho 20, late in the show’s run last week. (It closes in a day or two–I was late to a number of shows on this visit to the city. The trials of living 350 miles away from Manhattan.) For the exhibit at Soho 20, More Life than Still, she assembled tiny bits of cut colored paper into precise images of weeds, plants and flowers. At the bottom of each mosaic, she  scribbled off-hand notes about the plant in pencil. The casual, dashed-off notes balanced an impression of assiduous care in the rendering and gave each image a fresh sense of informality and vitality. As if she were actually working quickly to catch what she could of something fully alive, in whatever time she had, before it faded. (That’s pretty much art itself isn’t it?) I explored the technique Bisbing uses in a previous post about how Mary Wells, an ex-member at Viridian Artists, who learned the Italian art of mosaic minuto, and now practices it with colored paper rather than glass filaments. Bisbing’s amazing focus on the tiniest elements of a weed’s anatomy, as it were, gives her constructions a tremendous sense of pent-up energy which is hard to apprehend in photographs of the work. Her statement is charmingly humble:

I spent last summer in the Catskills making studies of wildflowers in Lexington, New York. These flowers/weeds were gathered along the sides of the road within a half–mile or so of where we were staying. I am interested in native versus invasive species as well as the rich history and lore surrounding these beauties. You will see my notes scribbled alongside the collages in my sketchbook. These are 10 of the 40 some studies.

In the image above, it’s impressive how she was able, with different colors of paper, to capture the sense of a how light penetrates or reflects off leaves differently depending on their angle, producing a diverse variety of hues from an identical set of leaves. It’s remarkable and difficult enough for a painter, let alone someone constructing an image out of cut-and-assembled paper. In the past, she has used this technique to create amazing, miniature pastiches of great works from art history in a new medium, with her own dazzling sense of color. (Matisse would have smiled appreciatively at the paper-cutting skill here, as well as a color sense as lush as the color scheme of Betty Woodman’s ceramics.) Bisbing collects medicinal flowers, weeds, intrusive plants, and then identifies and categorizes what she finds with the help of a botanist, Bonnie Blader. The sense of selfless discipline in all this reminds me of Thoreau’s almost scientific attempt, late in life, to simply observe and keep a voluminous record of the natural world around him in his journals. The question he asked in one passage in 1858 says it all: “Did I not put this to early in last year’s list of willows?” Last year’s list of willows. The man was serious about his taxonomy. Funny, touching, and yet so obviously a question from someone engaged in a pioneering attempt  to be nothing but a witness to natural world. He was done talking about his own pursuit of a transcendent vision, full of metaphoric turns of phrase, and was simply saying day after day: This is what I see and hear. I have nothing to add. 

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