It’s written in the good book that we come from the garden; now it’s time to go back. And after a “long, cold, lonely winter,” the invite has arrived just in time. This spring, Nassau County Museum of Art is hosting Garden Party, an exhibit featuring works from artists with a diverse sensibility and palette inspired by the timeless, symbolic beauty of flora and fauna.
The exhibition was organized by guest curators Franklin Hill Perrell, the museum’s former senior curator, and JoAnne Olian, curator emeritus at the Museum of the City of New York. Garden Party explores the imagery of fête champêtre through paintings, sculpture, costume, fabrics and decorative arts and designs. Nassau County Museum of Art’s 145 bucolic acres are also blooming, making this month the ideal time for such an exhibit.
“It seems like there are very few art exhibitions afoot that deal with the theme of gardens and flowers,” said Perrell. “Yet artists have been painting them for years. Why? Flowers are a vehicle for color and they appear in an incredible variety of shapes and configurations. They become a natural vehicle for abstraction and pictorial invention.”
While flowers portend spring and summer, the exhibit is careful to give the viewer a sense of the inevitable turning of all the seasons. Robert Kushner’s “Spring Scatter Summation” (2005) is a monstrous example of this cyclic totality. Checking in at 7 feet by 46 feet, Kushner’s mural is brought to life not with the sharp and daring colors of flowers in full bloom, but with a subtler array of hues and textures. Off whites and the cold blues of winter slowly give way to the brighter golds and yellows that poke through like the early shoots and buds of late March, assuring us that the sun is on its way. The sheer size of the piece speaks to the power of the planets—the eternity of inertia that keeps us spinning around the sun and keeps nature on its toes.
Garden Party does well to articulate the endless variety of nature with a diverse collection of works. Hunt Slonem’s “Witness” (2006) is a soft, yet psychedelic stretching of flowers and their colorful capacity to enchant. Its oil and canvas depiction of pastel yellows, oranges and purples and deft references to sunflowers and tribal masks hiding in the brush are all arranged in a childlike collage. The piece is a simple evocation of innocence and wonder; quite effortlessly, it both embodies and induces spring fever.
In stark contrast, Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Rose” (1989) is an intense black and white portrait of the singular, seminal bloom in full peacock mode—its petals at their peak, the curvature of its stem is stately in its solitude.
The small gelatin silver print stuns with its simplicity and the shock value so prevalent in Mapplethorpe’s work is somehow transformed into something more elegant and refined, but no less sexual and provocative.
When it comes to interpreting nature’s perfection and variation, no discussion can start or stop without the inclusion of Georgia O’Keefe. Her oil and canvas “Coxcomb” (1931) is an undulating mediation of soft shape and color, its pinkish purple folds curling in and around one another in a warm Venus-like display of naturalism. O’Keefe’s aesthetic has long hinted at the inextricable link between flowers and the feminine, and her inclusion in this exhibit continues to drive that connection home.
In his own sweet and whimsical way, Marc Chagall’s “Le Repos” (1980) tells us everything we need to know (and feel) about our relationship with nature. The gouache and watercolor painting features what appears to be a group of villagers and their pets (so frequently present in Chagall’s work) basking in the magnificence of a vase of flowers in bloom.
With its soft curls of sky blue and its delicate slice of moon, the piece plays to Chagall’s strengths by conveying the breezy lightness of being and the comforting power of prayer.
As a whole, Nassau County Museum of Art’s Garden Party is a celebration of celebration. As an affirmation of the inevitable cycle of renewal and decay, it reminds us of the beauty that lies therein and our powerlessness to do a thing about it. It’s best to just accept the invite with a smile, throw on a flowered sundress or a Hawaiian shirt and walk barefoot in the grass. But don’t hesitate, because if Garden Party reminds us of anything, it reminds us that the moment is here—and then it’s gone.
Garden Party at Nassau County Museum of Art runs until July 6.