PRICK HUNDREDS OF CONTEMPORARY PAINTINGS and the air goes out of them. Prick a fine botanical and it bleeds. With Derrick Guild’s florilegium of oversized, counterfeit botanical paintings, a prick gets you a some of both: a little blood and a bit more air than is needed. Blood is the best part.
The lifeblood of historical botanicals flows from an obligation to be both true and beautiful, a transcendent unit. This dual nature of botanical art — scientific in purpose, aesthetic in conception and execution—is turned on its head by Guild. After Eden, at Allan Stone Gallery, is a collection of fastidiously imagined botanical fictions. These impossible plant forms, meticulously realized, owe themselves to the artist’s 22-months on Ascension Island. A British dependency in the mid-Atlantic with only 3 indigenous plants, the island’s lush rain forest has been an ongoing work of human ingenuity since the mid-18th century. What British botanists achieved in real life, Guild mimics on canvas. These are the botanical equivalent of capriccios, fantastical species of flowering plants instead of invented architectural ruins.
Truth to tell, Guild’s made-up hybrids could have been conceived as easily back home in Edinburgh. Ascension Plant V (Broughton Street Botanical) admits as much. Rising to 6 1/2 feet, its branch of disparate blooms, is every inch a studio whimsy. Inspired rummaging through illustrated herbals or the books available from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens (off Boughton Street) would yield the same pictorial results.
The accompanying catalogue patter strains to transform Guild’s tour de force into a long-faced commentary on colonialism, creationism, “the imperative of consumption” and related Big Thoughts. It is meant to convince the viewer there is more here than meets the eye. Presenting Guild as a political painter provides fashionable, if muddled, cover for what is, at heart, nothing more—though certainly nothing less—than a delicious trompe l’oeil romp.
Historical botanicals were worked in watercolor on paper; Guild’s improbable species are done in oil on canvas. His forgeries of aged paper look older, more stained and crumpled, than the real thing. He foregoes the gamesmanship of earlier practitioners of trompe l’oeil, e.g. William Harnett and John Peto, by pumping up dimensions. Some will see the work as a partial send-up of the ancient trompe l’oeil tradition; others will see kitsch—note the small sculptures—dressed as social commentary. Lighter hearts will enjoy it best. They can find here visual counterpart to Marianne Moore’s insistence on “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey
This review appeared first in CityArts, September 15, 2010.