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Why Plants Are Having An Art World Moment

Wondering why art seems to suddenly be full of ferns? We investigate the symbolic history of plants in artwork and galleries.

Plants seem to be having a moment in the art world right now. Blame it on Kinfolk’s absurdly perfect interior decorating spreads, blame it on net art’s love of digital palm trees, or maybe it’s a pushback against how much time we all spend online. Pantone chose a green shade as their 2017 Color of the Year in an effort to go back to nature, and it feels like photographers and artists are doing the same. Lately, plants are abundant in portraits, in paintings, and in sculptural work.

Artwork and potted plants actually have a longstanding relationship. The blog Mise en green, run by gallery curator Arden Sherman, chronicles the history of plants in gallery settings, beginning in the 1960s. A 1970s Jasper Johns show is pictured dominated by a giant plant, while a 1966 Henry Moore exhibition includes some small plants that look like secondary sculptures. The trend is only continuing to grow, it seems, as Mise en green includes a multitude of contemporary shows as well. For artists like Andy Dixon, a New York-based contemporary painter, the inclusion of a plant in an exhibition can mirror and extend the work shown—Dixon’s paintings often features fruits, flowers, and plants.

As living, growing things, gallery plants stand out in stark, organic contrast next to the human-made artworks they accompany. A plant can even act as a stand-in for a gallery patron, taking on an anthropomorphic quality, as Faye Kahn suggests in an essay for the art blog Bad at Sports. Kahn notes the way in which gallery plants may “occupy space in an analogous way to how a person would, with similar height and life presence.”

Because the relationship humans have with houseplants is one of dependence and care, the plant can invoke a sense of compassion, even companionship. Moving onto the canvas, depictions of plants in art can serve the same purpose as the placement of a plant in a gallery. Plants serve as a “unique stand-in for a person because they have no emotive face,” as Kahn notes.

A plant within a work of art can therefore bring up a weird sense of empathy, perhaps a vague, displaced feeling of connection with other living beings. In Tau Lewis’ sculptural work, the artist uses this displacement to symbolize the African diaspora, drawing a parallel between the hardiness of cacti and “the perseverance of black life.”

Plants can also be used to draw attention to the contrast between the artificial and the natural, as in Polly Brown’s series Plants, where the photographer documents the office plants of various high-profile companies with oddly compelling results. In a similar vein, Luke Stephenson’s Foyer Flora captures the plants that populate office space. Says Stephenson, “These sad examples of vegetation seem to have become their own type of flora existing exclusively in our man-made environment.” In his series hk flora, photographer Michael Wolf investigates the way citizens of densely urban Hong Kong strive to add greenery to their surroundings, capturing sad but hardy little plants hanging onto precarious window ledges and perched atop drainpipes.

Below, we’ve selected some of our favorite plant-inspired paintings, photos, and other artworks.

Andy Dixon’s online portfolio

Carson Gilliland’s online portfolio

Tau Lewis’ online portfolio

Nils Jorgensen’s online portfolio

Andrew Watch’s online portfolio

Anttika Levi’s online portfolio

Vincent Mercier’s online portfolio

Annie Trincot’s online portfolio

Kara Riley’s online portfolio

Luke Stephenson’s online portfolio

Chloé Bertron’s online portfolio

Hiroyuki Ishii’s online portfolio

Michael Wolf’s online portfolio

Tishk Barzanji’s online portfolip

Polly Brown’s online portfolio

Malin Griffith’s online portfolio

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