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Frank Stella, Cindy Sherman, and my Calathea Lancifolia

April 8th, 2010

My girlfriend bought me this plant, a striking Calathea Lancifolia, from the Volunteer Park Conservatory here in Seattle. If you live in Seattle and haven’t been, the Conservatory is a classic paradise well worth an hour of your afternoon. They have a few of these little guys integrated into their tropical exhibit, and it is perhaps my favorite species in a room filled to the brim with incredibly beautiful and curious flora.

Why do I like this little plant so much? Several reasons should be fairly obvious from the photos above. Besides the fact that it is simply a visually stunning plant — with contrasting green variegation, a gradient green, gently waved edge, and a bold purple underside — my favorite aspect is how the markings on the top of the leaf appear as if the silhouette of a different sort of plant has been imprinted over top. It makes me think of a plant wearing a plant suit, which amuses my easy-to-amuse mind to no end.

Speaking of plant-within-a-plant, the notion of self-reflexivity is also at the heart of this particular fancy. Within the realm of the arts, the aspect of High Modernism that I always respected was how closely form and philosophy are married. If you were in art grad school in the 60′s, you probably would have been evangelized to the notion that a piece of artwork is most true to itself — most correct — when all of its visual, objective qualities reflect both the reason for and action of its creation. This notion began with abstract artists like Josef Albers (below left) who was interested in light and color and whose painted forms echoed the shape of the canvas they were painted on. This idea reached it’s apex with artists like Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella (below right). Stella made works where each mark was the width of the brush he painted it with, and whose canvases where sized to efficiently house the number of marks needed to complete the composition. Pollock’s work looks crazier, but his dynamic sloshing of paint is just as much an overt index of the painting process. They are very simply paintings about the act of making a painting.

So, while it might be tempting to see Calathea Lancifolia as a particularly Modernist plant because of the way that its appearance echoes its meta reality as a plant, it turns out that there something hindering this interpretation. There is an alternate way of spinning the appearance of plant-like markings on Calathea Lancifolia’s foliage. They can be seen not as a self reflection, but instead as a mask. While there is a certain self-consciousness — a redundancy of selves — to the wearing of a mask, any deeper reality must acknowledge the falseness of a second face. Once the train of thought turns towards the issue of costume, we enter into the realm of the Post-Modernists.

Starting with Marcel Duchamp, whose Rrose Selavy and Monte Carlo Bond characters set his reputation as the early father of Post-Modernism, and finding it’s full concentration within the work of Cindy Sherman (above), using disguise became a means of subverting the rules and exposing the artifice of Modernist ideals. It’s fun to think of Sherman as the anti-Stella, as her work exposed photography not as a reflector of any sort of truth, but as an agent for boundless uncertainty.

So, at the the end of the day, I think that within my little Calathea Lancifolia, I get both a modernist masterpiece and a post-modernist schizophrenic. Either that, or its just a really cool looking plant. Only time will tell how this little plant is to positioned by art historians within the hallowed canon of fine art.

(plant photos courtesy of Sara Lawrence at Soft Dimension, Albers and Stella images courtesy the unexpectedly excellent Saint Louis Art Museum, and Cindy Sherman images courtesy the Internets)

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