Carol Bove and Janine Lariviere: Plants & Mammals b/w Mushrooms
Horticultural Society of New York, April 15-September 10, 2009
A two-tiered event at the Horticultural Society of New York recently thrilled me for its reframing of plant and fungi science into a stylized art project. As an artist/writer who is also an amateur mycologist, I felt someone had snuck into my head and stolen my dream: a botanical library-slash-indoor garden in which artists riff on green themes, and mycologists commingle with stoners while mushroom movies roll. To introduce film into this mixed media installation, curator Jody Jacobson hosted a screening called Mushrooms in conjunction with Carol Bove and Janine Lariviere’s exhibition, Plants & Mammals. A description of the physical exhibition will contextualize the films Jacobson selected for this hour of mind-blowing celluloid psychedelia.
Carol Bove, a sculptor and assemblage artist who incorporates printed matter and other mixed media into her works that have a charmed, sometimes mystical formalism, installed a suite of sculptures including bent, rusted metal hammered onto a pedestal, driftwood and netting suspended from the ceiling with rope, and two peacock feathers dangling from a pole. On the longest wall, opposite the Society’s excellent library of gardening books, hung Bove’s series of text/image collages. Bove, known for her installations as well as the printed ephemera that accompanies them, collaborated with Lariviere to make an artist book, concurrently titled Plants & Mammals, which felt like the raison d’etre for the exhibition and cinematic event. Lariviere’s half of the print project, a tidy yet expansive, 10-foot long accordion book, Twentieth Century Narcissus, expanded on display like freshly unfurled narcissus petals to detail a history of daffodils through image and minimal text. When compact, Twentieth Century Narcissus is encased in a brick red sleeve, along with a photograph of Bove’s Zen-like installation, and a fold-out poster of one of Bove’s wall pieces: a black-and-white, diamond-shaped cut-out of an antique animal woodcut and a William Blake illustration interrupted by an experimental poem bidding Marilyn Monroe good wishes in the afterlife. Themes of fleeting tranquility, metaphysical mash-up, feminine mystery, and human connection with wilderness created a ripe setting for April 30th’s film screening.
Half of the event’s excitement was in guessing what sort of audience a mushroom film screening would attract. Seats were occupied by artists, members of the New York Mycological Society, and certain fitting bearded guests, like Arik Roper, whose brand new book, Mushroom Magick: A Visionary Field Guide, treats mushrooms as rock stars in glitzy, rainbow gouache portraits. I felt myself getting abnormally excited to see Harry Smith’s Early Abstractions—again—as I just can’t get enough of his alchemically potent art spells, especially screened in conversation with fairly austere, Minimalist contemporary art. Jacobson opened with the only film literally depicting mushroom foragers: Jud Yalkut’s John Cage Mushroom Hunting in Stony Point (1973), a sweet, seven-minute, summertime stroll through the woods upstate with Cage and friends filling baskets with fungi and retreating to his forest abode, a glass house that would suit any director of the NYMS. (John Cage was an avid mushroom hunter and used to head up the mycological society.) As I watched footage of a smiling Cage, gray-bearded and casual in jeans, stooping over plants to dig under and through shrubbery to stranger undergrowth, my hectic city day evaporated. The remainder of the program was about further transport.
Harry Smith’s Early Abstractions, scored with Beatles’ tunes, were astonishingly Modernist viewed in light of the clean lines in Bove’s work. Watching batiked geometric shapes floating on the screen reminded me that he started making these in 1939, under the influence of the early Modernists and Bauhaus members. Film #5, in fact, was an homage to Oscar Fischinger. #10 was the gem, however, “an exposition of Buddhism and the Kaballa in the form of a collage,” as the filmmaker described it. With it’s swirling mandalas, Tibetan dragons attempting yogic poses, and one nearly subliminal appearance of an Amanita muscaria, the red-and-white spotted, fairy tale fly agaric, #10 predicted beat and hippie culture. This was the most complex animation, and the last in Smith’s series, made in 1956. Jonas Mekas’s Award Presentation to Andy Warhol (1964) was saggy and pretentious following the enlightened Smith set. Warhol and his jaded clan stood around passing produce, as if they were the first people who ever found a picnic in a fruit bowl.
Bruce Conner’s Looking for Mushrooms (1996), a revision of his 1965 film that now includes Terry Riley’s haunting score, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” ended the night on a woozy note. Blurry shots of rural Mexico’s people and landscape captured what Conner and pal, Timothy Leary, must have seen while visiting this psychedelic capital following R. Gordon Wasson’s trip south to discover the region’s shamanic employment of entheogenic psyilocybes. The film itself had the blue-stained hue of a shroom. Taken together, the films, installation, and book art allowed for a refreshingly holistic and abstract meditation on occult subject matter. More specifically, the exhibit reminded one of possibility—of sharing experience with found, natural objects and non-human, living organisms from the natural world.