Conduct a quick and dirty survey of art history, and roughly three recurring themes bubble to the surface: mortality, the female form and flowers. A whole mess of flowers. So much so, in fact, that as a subject, the flower can seem a bit pedestrian; the phrase “over it” comes to mind. And painting? What new revelations about such a staid subject can possibly be achieved through a centuries-old medium?
You might be surprised. But in the case of Mary Warner’s Heavy Petal, opening this Friday at Trifecta Gallery, it’s not so much a question of what the painting reveals about the flower as what the flower can say about painting.
- Heavy Petal
- Through March 31; Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Artist reception, March 1, 6-8 p.m.
- Trifecta Gallery, 366-7001
Botanical themes have a bit of an identity crisis, more Sunday painter than radical, edgy or ambitious art maker. Perhaps it’s their sheer accessibility as a subject that keeps them slightly marginalized. Much is made of Warner’s focus on flora, and there’s no doubt that her commitment to such a deceptively amateurish subject is a little perverse and pretty punk rock. The artist has lived in Vegas and taught at UNLV for more than 20 years, painting flowers for almost as long.
Warner’s rapt attention stokes the flames of our own. Her infatuation translates into vibrant blooms with highly individuated petals, bursting like fireworks from the confines of their warm linen surface. Each and every mark means something, from juicy streaks of pink or yellow to brazenly visible pencil marks.
Look hard, and the marks break down. Nestled alongside velvety layers of oil and random teases of graphite are swaths of monochromatic color, with petals reduced to essential geometry. Patterns emerge, flattening the playing field and pushing the dramatic dimension of the blooms. Large shadow-like shapes of each flower function as separate and unique spatial devices. Warner’s affection for Japanese prints and decorative detailing rivals her love of Zinnia. Alternating between ornamental patterning and full-throttle, 3D illusionistic space, the paintings track a thought process hinged on the taut investigation of shape, pattern, surface and media, not to mention art history itself.
Despite such rigor, the paintings remain breezy, effortless and disarmingly playful. A humble blossom handled with such a light touch opens up a world of possibilities for viewing. Compared to previous efforts, Heavy Petal is dominated by simpler compositions with far subtler intentions. Warner’s concern for the pleasures of painting—both as artist and as viewer—are still present, they just require a bit more study. The attentive eye is generously rewarded. By elevating the ubiquitous flower, Warner gently manipulates our assumptions about subject and subjectivity.