It may be a spaceship, hovering over a paint-by-numbers background. Or perhaps a nebula of fireworks, caught at the exact moment of explosion before color vanishes into annihilating shadows. To call Mary Warner’s recent canvases “portraits of flowers”—or worse yet, “flower paintings”—misses the point. They are not really flowers at all.
Warner’s “Heavy Petals” show at Trifecta Gallery emerges from the artist’s 20-year sustained focus on a single subject matter: flowers. But like Monet’s haystacks or Turner’s skies, the more Warner paints the same subject matter, the more it defies representation. Instead of increasing familiarity, sustained focus on the same subject has the opposite effect: the subject deconstructs into pictorial elements of line, mass, contrast and tone. Unsuspected architectures of form emerge, invisible to the unschooled eye.
In one of the strongest pieces in the show, Zinnia, pink and coral petals morph into sensual tentacles and tongues, while the stem of the flower frays into negative shadows painted in monochromatic planes on minimally treated linen. Against the flat contours of the absent plants, the monumental blossom swells with corpulent life, as if displaced from a sci-fi film—the sentient floating head of a botanic beauty queen.
Warner uses a similar compositional strategy in Two Zinnias and Butterfly, but the blossoms in these canvases are completely stemless, untethered from earth, the petals whirring the colorful heads into a lush pictorial dimension. Here, too, the contrast between the 2D ground and 3D figure rivets attention on the architectonics of the sexy, suggestive blooms.
In choosing flowers as her muse, Warner annexes a genre whose fortunes rose and fell through the ages, from the early portraits of lotus flowers in Egyptian tombs to Mapplethorpe’s outrageously phallic lilies. Condemned by the early church for exuding pagan sensuality, upheld during the Renaissance as symbols of the transience of life, flowers were sought after in the paintings of the 17th-century, when patrons who could not afford bulbs for the garden paid for a blooming facsimile. By the 18th century, flower painting was in decline and stayed there, with few notable exceptions. When Warhol exhibited Do It Yourself (flowers) in 1962—a paint-by-numbers pop icon—flower painting was synonymous with hobby art.
Warner’s “Heavy Petals” prompts the viewer to rethink flowers by placing them on a sliding interface between abstraction and representation, decoration and provocation, organic forms and forms contrived. Some of the works in the show owe a strong debt to the Arts & Crafts movement, with its emphasis on the repetitive motifs of folk art, and to Ukiyo-e, the Japanese woodblock prints that altered the course of Modernism at the end of the 19th century with shifting perspectives.
A more subtle influence on Warner’s work is the landscape of her adopted home, Las Vegas. Native blooms are usually of the succulent variety, short-lived and poignantly abrupt, but the city itself blossoms perennially, nightly, with all varieties of incandescent light. The “Heavy Petals” of the exhibit’s title finds partial explanation here: in the memorable explosions of engineered light that is Las Vegas. Warner’s flowers burst into the air with a similar artifice, strange and beautiful.