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Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants

Christine Neill's Flora Shows Off Artistic Growth

Garden Of Delights: The lithographs "Linkwood Spring I" and "Linkwood Spring V" (below) display Christine Neill's talents in full flower.

By Ned Oldham | Posted 4/3/2002

Paintings by Christine Neill

Gomez Gallery through April 20

Christine Neill's mixed-media watercolor show at Gomez Gallery gives the viewer a sense of parallel reality: the human world illuminated through the plant world. Her large watercolors are more or less portraits of plants, with Neill's tight, centered focus on her subjects counterbalancing the asymmetry of the forms. Most of the works also contain images of digitally scanned leaves and flowers, yet these components harmonize in her work to the point that it is difficult if not impossible to discern what is "organic" and what digital--the digital images are, in fact, all organic anyway.

Neill, who graduated from Skidmore College in 1969 with a degree in biology, says, "I could just as easily have ended up a botanist." A myriad of plant specimens--dried leaves, blossoms, seed pods, and other flora that caught Neill's eye--covers a large table in her Hampden studio. She has lived and worked in Baltimore as an artist and professor at Maryland Institute College of Art for the past 25 years, and beats a regular path to a cabin in New Hampshire every summer. She and her husband, graphic designer Lew Fifield, also make regular pilgrimages to Puerto Rico each Christmas. From these locations and, most profoundly, from her backyard in North Baltimore's Linkwood Park, Neill has gathered, absorbed, and reimagined these specimens and turned them into a body of work that alludes to classical portraiture as well as to naturalist paintings such as those of Audubon.

The Gomez exhibit greets viewers with a pair of black orchid blossoms, painterly but realistic renderings on abstract fields that have a stronger, darker overall palette than any other pieces in the show. The swoops and peaks of the blossoms mimic crashing waves on a dark field of purple modulated with pink and gray. The orchid blossoms have that kinetic caught-in-the-instant look--not a frozen instant as in a high-speed photograph, but more like a blossom pressed between the pages of a book or the dramatic expression of a druidic victim preserved in a bog. The composition is portraitlike, the orchid images centered in the composition and limned with the painterly flair and spiritual flicker characteristic of the portraits of Hals and Rembrandt.

"What Lies Beneath" is a series of four paintings of ancient medicinals (two mandrake roots, two ginseng roots) that uses a sort of time-browned palette to take the classical portrait comparison a step further. The two roots are quite similar in form: gnarled tuberlike roots sprout star-faced sprays of foliage. The roots are undulant, like manatees with delicate explosions--like ideas--flaring out of their heads, suggesting a duality between foliage and root, or persona and soul.

"I've thought of them as figurative," Neill says of her images, "very humanlike. They have human gestures." In the same breath, however, she acknowledges that that is probably not the best way to say it. She doesn't personify the plants she paints to an exaggerated degree, and their resemblance to humans seems to occur as a result of coincidences in the natural world. In the Gomez exhibit, her "Linkwood Spring" series gives the most powerful examples of this figurative nature. The series includes five plant-portraits that share a muscular green-and-red gravity and range in personality from regal to brash.

The series plays around with the off-canvas space. All five depict single-stemmed shoots of new growth (though each branches out in very different ways), framed so as to cut off the base of the plant and the ground from which it grows. There's an interesting paradox in the way that Neill gives these images of spring growth the earthiest palette and physicality in the exhibit, compared with the drifting-in-the-mists-of-time weightlessness with which she portrays the mandrake and ginseng roots.

One of the first things to strike the viewer about the "Linkwood" series is the sum of the different personalities lined up together, all executed with a forcefulness of line that gives the impression of being executed in one deft, wet stroke of the brush. It's like a police lineup, or a band of five strong personas on stage. "V," for example, resembles an impetuous yet aging empress with a sinister and grandly arched neck, pink collars (resembling phallus after phallus blooming) like finery encircling the trunk at each node of new growth, all crowned with a beautiful, powerful, and imperious face. Leaves like insect arms arch out from the trunk as if ready for an iron embrace.

"II" and "III" both work with more antagonistic visions of the sort of duality Neill rather reverently iconized in "What Lies Beneath." "II" takes a dogleg, grows upward, and forms a soldierly, surly, rotund figure impotently waving crablike claws. From this worldly being's head come two flamelike growths, like projections of the imagination. "III" portrays duality in a sort of parent-child/greater-lesser image as the stalk depicted forks into a short piece and a long piece, two parts of a whole facing off each other. Each one has two armlike growths, a budlike head, and seems to endlessly harangue (and be harangued by) the other.

As an artist, Neill makes use of coincidence and serendipity, and it isn't really clear where biology ends and imagination begins. Many of the images, including the "Linkwood Spring" series, are layered--prints, digital images, drawing, and wetly worked watercolor, with which, as she points out, "there is very much that element of serendipity anyway.

"I'm interested in [the] analytical, actually, contrasted with the interpreted, painterly, imagined image," she says, not giving away just how much or how little she has manipulated her subjects. But her strongest work has a deliberate feeling. She has found clear vision in the mixing of media and, in the portrayal of time, sex, dominance, and competition in the plant world--some of the primary questions that the artifice-driven human world tends to repress or downplay.

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