Weird, Wild & Wonderful

Asuka Hishiki, Heirloom Tomato (Kindhearted Monster), Solanum lycopersicum, watercolor on paper.

Asuka Hishiki, Heirloom Tomato (Kindhearted Monster), Solanum lycopersicum, watercolor on paper.

The botanical world is full of surprises, as any of the thousands of people who’ve visited the Amorphophallus titanum in bloom might tell you. Wild sizes, outrageous colors, complex patterns, otherworldly shapes—all a result of the remarkable adaptations plants make in response to habitat, in defense against predators, and in developing successful reproductive strategies.

Artists have long been inspired by the intriguing nature of plants. But, as Gregory Long, president of the New York Botanical Garden puts it, botanical artists take that inspiration to the highest level: combining aesthetics and formal artistic considerations with scientific accuracy and mastery of technique—with stunning results. You can see examples of this work at a new exhibition going on view in the Brody Botanical Center. “Weird, Wild & Wonderful”—which runs, weekends only, from June 13 to Aug. 23—is a collaboration between the New York Botanical Garden and the American Society of Botanical Artists. The two organizations invited artists to contribute artwork, out of which a jury selected 46 spectacular examples to comprise the exhibition. Artists were asked to focus their attention on botanical specimens that celebrate both the “bizarre and the beautiful.”

Asuka Hishiki, Wasabi Root, Eutrema japonica, watercolor on paper.

Asuka Hishiki, Wasabi Root, Eutrema japonica, watercolor on paper.

Consider Asuka Hishiki’s Wasabi Root, a tangled beard of grays and greens so delicately rendered as to leave me, upon viewing it, wondrously smitten. I’ll never look at a little lump of wasabi the same way again. Said Hishiki: “I kept adding more dash lines of roots, and eventually the root labyrinth emerged from chaos. I certainly enjoyed painting it, but it is also true that occasionally I regretted that I had picked the subject.” No kidding. It’s an extraordinary feat. And yet I can imagine the headache that might have resulted, not to mention the stinging eyes. This is, in fact, what the word “awesome” was designed to describe.

Hishiki has another piece in the show that adorns the cover of the catalog and much of the publicity material for the exhibition: an absolutely mind-blowing watercolor of an heirloom tomato, lovingly called Kindhearted Monster. It is so technically masterful that it’s nearly impossible to believe the work is not a color photograph.

Dick Rauh, Witch Hazel Capsules, Hanamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, watercolor on paper.

Dick Rauh, Witch Hazel Capsules, Hanamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, watercolor on paper.

Says historian of science Karen Reeds in the exhibition catalog: the artists “tempt us to imagine oddly distorted bits of ourselves—heads, hair, whiskers, fingers, claws, baby toes, gaping mouths—embodied in these plants.” And gaping mouths there are aplenty, in Dick Rauh’s Witch Hazel Capsules, Carol Woodin’s Muir Listens, and Lee McCaffree’s California Pipevine. And then there are the creepy, gnarled fingers of Carrie Di Costanzo’s Buddha’s Hand. Of course, it’s impossible not to mention Deborah Shaw’s spectacularly detailed offering: Dog Turd Fungus with Pill Bug. Every child of a certain age will get a particular thrill out of this one, not to mention some of the grown ups!  Including me.

Something for everybody here. See for yourself. In addition, you can take the art home with you: the exhibition’s full-color, 76-page catalog is available in the Huntington Store. And there’s a whole host of programming that accompanies the show, including a symposium and summer workshops.

Deborah B. Shaw, Dog Turd Fungus with Pill Bug, Pisolithus tinctorious, Armadillidium vulgare, watercolor on paper.

Deborah B. Shaw, Dog Turd Fungus with Pill Bug, Pisolithus tinctorious, Armadillidium vulgare, watercolor on paper.

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Susan Turner-Lowe is vice president for communications and marketing at The Huntington.

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