Review: More then just plant porn

MORE THAN JUST PLANT PORN:  JOHN PASTORIZA-PIÑOL’S HERMES – APHRODITE
 
John Pastoriza- Piñol
Hermes – Aphrodite
15th Nov – 15th Dec 2012
Nellie Castan Gallery
 
Rich luminous hues and gorgeously exotic and rare botanical specimens belie the fact that there is something much more subversive going on in John Pastoriza-Piñol’s Hermes – Aphrodite, at Nellie Castan Gallery in South Yarra from November to December 2012.  These are more than mere flower paintings – a closer inspection reveals a certain ambiguity of form and intent, the deliberate insinuation of human sexuality in all its various modes in a dark and complex narrative.  The familiarity and pleasure we derive from looking at a depiction of a beautiful plant or flower is somewhat challenged, and the artist suggestively urges us to look beyond the aesthetic and move into slightly more uneasy territory.
It would be easy to dismiss this show as some kind of cheap association between plants and pornography, but it’s not all just titillation and sexual-innuendo:  there are much deeper themes being explored here, along with a tradition that spans back through centuries.  
 
The exhibition title Hermes – Aphrodite refers to Ovid’s account of Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite.  Hermaphroditus was adored so utterly by the nymph Salmacis that she forced herself upon him and prayed to the gods for a complete union between them.  Her wish was granted and they became bodily united so that both male and female characteristics were combined.  Correspondingly, the gender lines in our society now are becoming increasingly blurred; our bodies are the site and subject of on-going debate and contention.  Male-female relationships are now only one mode of human sexuality amongst so many other variables – same-sex relationships, transgender, cross-gender, monogamy, polygamy, differing cultural practices – you name it, it’s happening somewhere.  The sex you’re physically born with is not necessarily the one you have to maintain throughout life.  And this ambiguity exists not just within the realm of the bedroom – professional, social, and domestic roles for men and women are also changing.  
Plants, on the other hand, are not in such a state of flux and confusion.  They modestly are what they are, part of a bionetwork so perfectly designed one must marvel at the simplicity of it all.  Pastoriza-Piñol’s exquisite representation of their delicate reproductive systems (which is really what flowers and seeds are) offers a stark contrast to our own sweaty, messy, sometimes clumsy encounters so often fraught with some kind of psychological and/or emotional consequence, if not countless psychoanalytical theories.  Plants openly display their sexual organs in their full glory with a wonderfully refined elegance.  While usually no direct physical interaction takes place between the species, nothing is left to chance within the plant kingdom.  Their vibrant visual displays and alluring fragrances are intended to attract a third party to do the deed for them – often these are specifically designed to attract certain species of insects and birds.  Most offer nectar as an enticement to these visitors as a way to ensure repeat visits.  It’s a system that is brilliant, beautiful, and perfect.  
 
There are some amusing resemblances to our own attempts towards reproduction:  we humans dress ourselves in exotic patterns and colours and drench ourselves in perfumes in order to attract a sexual partner, and our offering of “nectar” is more often than not intended to seduce.  However our interaction is much more physically direct and not nearly so simple and refined.  We are obsessed by sex and so much of our personal interaction is dominated by the thought of it: having it, avoiding it, who with, where, how often, why, why not.  For plants it’s just part of the evolutionary cycle, for us it’s a lot more complicated.  I guess that’s one of the consequences of being human – a physical body driven by a thinking, feeling, questioning, analysing consciousness below which, in the unconscious, lurk the murkier aspects of our personalities.  
It’s certainly not a new notion – the sex life of the plant world, the sensual aspects of botanical illustration, and the analogies with human sexual behaviour have long been a source of fascination.  As a form of scientific representation fundamentally for the purpose of identifying and classifying plants, botanical illustration has the ability to transcend the borders between art and science.  This makes it difficult to categorise – as a field of study that dates back to antiquity it cannot be isolated from the social and cultural milieu in which it is produced.  A more concentrated reading reveals it to be rather uniquely intertwined with so many other fields, or perhaps more accurately those other fields are given an alternative perspective through the window of botanical art.  Economics, politics, science, the history of discovery and colonisation, religion, education, intellectualism, the evolution of technology and aesthetics, the rise of psychoanalytical theory and of course, gender issues and sexuality – it’s all in there amongst the flowers.1
 
In his seminal work Systema Natura published in 1735, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was the first scientist to classify plants not according to the way they were used (ie. for medicinal purposes), but instead by the physical similarities between their reproductive parts.  His “sexual system” grouped species with the same number of male stamens together, with sub-groups determined by the number of female pistils, and these categories remain the foundations of modern plant taxonomy today.  Many of his critics considered this emphasis on the reproductive organs immoral: he was described as “depressive, neurotic and secretive”, a man with a “curious passion for systematising everything that came to hand”, and exhibiting “obsessive-compulsive tendencies and paranoid anxieties”.2  Linnaeus even described plant sexuality in terms of marriage, seeing it as “romantic, erotic, sometimes illicit, and sometimes the sanctified expression of love between husband and wife.” 3  
 
If we really wanted to probe deeper, certain repetitive characteristics that appeared in botanical collection and illustration could possibly be explained by Freud’s theories on the psychological processes of repression and sublimation.  According to him, repression enabled primal instincts to be restrained for reasons of social acceptability, but they then surfaced in compulsive habits and obsessions.  Sublimation was associated with intellectual activity, art, scientific investigation and the desire to know.  Other prominent names within the field of botany including Ferdinand Bauer, Walter Fitch and Joseph Banks have been noted for all sorts of neuroses, obsessive tendencies, and in the case of Banks, uninhibited sexual liberties, with biographers often expressing amazement at their all-consuming passion and dedication to their discipline.  If one were to accept Freud’s theories, this intense personal and emotional engagement with the subject matter offers a means of understanding the sensuality and sexuality of much botanical illustration, and suggests that it is not entirely objective or unrelated to its creator.4  But the same could be said about all art really.
 
Now I’m not suggesting at all here that John Pastoriza-Piñol suffers from any of the obsessive tendencies or sexual repression ascribed to these earlier botanists, however it is worthwhile to consider where his work fits between both the centuries-old tradition of botanical illustration and current contemporary art.  While his paintings are botanically accurate and the verisimilitude is exceptional, purists might say that they do not strictly conform entirely to the precise definitions of botanical art.  They inhabit a territory somewhere between scientific analysis and symbolic realism, prompting a reading that goes beyond the purely representational and literal.  The artist himself says he aims to engender an appreciation for contemporary botanical art and accurate realism, however critical to his creativity is the exploration of an elaborate narrative in the deliberate choice and composition of his subject matter – he cites the unusual and macabre as enduring influences.5 
 
Countless artists before him, outside the field of botanical illustration, have used the depiction of flowers for centuries as a metaphor to express a sense of sexual embodiment.  Georgia O’Keefe’s  sensual floral imagery painted in the 1920s and 30s comes to mind immediately, although she insisted that people found things in her work that supposedly never entered her mind.  (Modesty or the repression of desire?)   Judy Chicago represented female sexuality through a stylised floral motif in her Through the Flower series, while Robert Mapplethorpe’s sublimely beautiful, meticulously composed floral portraits depicting intimate folds of petals and protruding stalks, leaves and stamen are undoubtedly meant to be translated as sexual metaphors.  
 
The subversiveness of Pastoriza-Piñol’s imagery can certainly be compared to Mapplethorpe’s, however he has developed an iconography that is distinctive from the other artist.  A master of his medium, his perfectly executed watercolours remain true to the accuracy that is vital to botanical illustration yet they have a fluidity and sensuality that stirs the viewer to experience more than a mere marvelling of technique.  A sense of unease is created by the recurrent use of certain motifs that are uniquely his own:  floating subjects devoid of shadows, minimalist compositions, clever use of negative space, and notably the broken or torn branches of his specimens.  The scientific, the decorative and the subversive are daringly combined to create a contemporary narrative that goes far beyond the art of close observation:  subtexts of separation, birth, death, sexuality, anxiety and the human experience elicit a more emotional response in his audience.  
Pastoriza-Piñol’s colour palette is extraordinarily vivid – one could dive forever into the luxurious blues of Lost Love? and Mentiroso, and revel in the erotic lollypop pink of Generation Zero.  The intricate detail of smaller works such as Walls of Venus and Open Arse draw one in to appreciate them up close, and the obvious allusion to male anatomy in Homoeroticus is startlingly bold – all incredibly beautiful depictions of botanical specimens I assure you, despite their provocative titles.  
 
That disparity between the two, perhaps, points impertinently but truthfully to the innovative and unique quality of Pastoriza-Piñol’s work, and the darker sensibilities at its heart.  There is a certain loss of innocence here, a tension between the beauty and perfection of the specimen depicted and the symbolism with which it is infused.  For a lesser artist this might have been simply an insolent thumb-in-the-nose towards the formal requirements of botanical art, however Pastoriza-Piñol’s ability to render his subject with such meticulous accuracy enables him to uphold that formalism as well as to reveal to us something about the darker aspects of our own nature.  Perhaps he has shown us that we do in fact have something to learn from the natural world.
 

1 The recent exhibition Capturing Flora: 300 years of Australian botanical art at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, in which John Pastoriza-Piñol’s work was included, was a perfect example of this.  

2 Dyson, Judy. ‘Botanical Illustration or Flower Painting: Sexuality, Violence and Social Discourse’, Colloquy, Issue 7, May 2003

3 Schiebinger, Londa. Nature’s Body: Gender and the Making of Modern Science, Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, p.23

4 Dyson, 2003

5 Interview with John Pastoriza-Piñol [online], URL: www.asba-art.org/article/15th-annual-interview-john-pastoriza-pi%C3%B1ol]

 

By Kim Anderson

Kim Anderson

One of Kim’s earliest memories is of being caught scribbling on the wall in her bedroom with a yellow pencil. Nothing has changed really, except perhaps the yellow. Now she spends her days scribbling (sometimes on walls) as an artist and occasionally a writer. After completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) at the University of Ballarat Arts Academy in 2003, Kim received a scholarship to study a Master of Fine Art at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Since completing the MFA in 2008 she has undertaken residencies around the world in Scotland, Italy and Japan. In 2010 Kim was awarded an ArtStart grant by the Australia Council and she has been a finalist in a number of awards including the Rick Amor Drawing Prize, the Swan Hill Print and Drawing Award and the Agendo Emerging Artist Award.