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Christine Neill, Paintings from the Digital Herbarium

By Anne Howard | Posted 11/9/2005

Christine Neill’s Paintings from the Digital Herbarium exhibit is a study of and a testament to the human proclivity to anthropomorphize nature. She paints her subjects realistically, often including an enlarged digital photograph in the composition, but she tempts you to read a human sensuality and personality into the works.

A glass case holds a French herbarium circa 1900, while Neill’s “21st-century version,” a flat-screen TV, cycles digital photographs of various plants every three seconds. The photos are deliberately simple and not terribly interesting, but they make a great comparison with Neill’s psychological interpretations of the same subject.

Neill started studying biology in college and eventually switched to art, and the paintings suggest a scientific eye: The leaves or blooms float in an indeterminate or blank space, as though pressed on a microscope slide or the page of a book. The silvery, luminous backgrounds of the 19 “Immortals,” bright watercolor portraits of plants inspired by portraits of the Japanese immortal poets, appear lit from behind. In “Dathura II,” the digital giclée print of a leaf, crisp and finite, is layered over a supple watercolor bloom, and “Two Hostas” likewise juxtaposes two leaves, the smooth fluid curves of watercolor lapping over the sharp digital print.

Her dynamic “Eucalypt Medusa,” a watercolor on paper, moves the eye in a loop, concisely describing a life cycle within its borders. White seed pods shaped like conch shells line a thin branch bending over itself, sea-green leaves curling like snakes. At the top, the pods begin to burst and orange threads stream down like confetti. The scarlet funnel-shaped blossom of “Amaryllis Verso/Obverse” dominates that composition, swept upward in cloudy gray and surrounded by scraps of pale yellow that mimic the red flower’s shape.

Neill points out the old relationship between science and myth that led botanists to describe plants with names from folklore: Eucalyptus Medusa, Jack in the Pulpit, Prunus Pandora, Gorgonia. Her animistic portraits—much larger than life, the petals evoking the transparent, sinuous fabric of Baroque paintings, the leaves limblike, highlighted against a plain background—elevate the plant to a mythic level. She also doesn’t shy from death and decay: Some leaves are black-spotted and gnawed, her flowers slouch, withered stems reach out like gnarled fingers. The latticed sea fans of “Gorgonia,” “Azul,” and “Amarillo” dissolve back into the wash of the background. Life and death exist together in the artworks.

It’s not like Neill’s compositions are anything particularly new or novel; George Ehret and Pierre Joseph Redouté well-covered botanical illustration, and Georgia O’Keefe examined flowers and psyches long ago. But Neill’s work digs into our past, and actively participates in and describes the phenomenon of personification. Essentially, it’s civilized shamanism.

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