The simplest joining of two nouns can bring about a magnificent effusion of meaning—the more magnificent, it seems, the more basic the nouns. In retrospect, Sons and Lovers may be too Freudian; The Naked and the Dead and The Sound and the Fury too over the top. But Boys and Flowers seems an unimpeachable title. It's a reminder of the petal-like feel of a little boy's hair and other temporary softnesses. Surely such innocence cannot survive in a contemporary art show, an adult domain of doubt and conceptualization where boys must be code for gender, and flowers a stand-in for a history of landscape art waiting to be tilled by postcolonial consciousness.
Not here. It isn't that the group show of painting, video, photography, and installation at Western Bridge this spring doesn't have serious concerns. As the Ragu people would say, it's in there. But Boys and Flowers—organized by Western Bridge director Eric Fredericksen, whose style is marked by intelligent levity—sticks with the play of its title. The show is more of a fat, supple peony than a tightly wound, prickly rose. I was surprised at how airy it is. It's light, not lite.
The 22 works on display are, indeed, images mostly of flowers, mostly made by men. They were culled from the collections of William and Ruth True and some people they know, except for two large exceptions, which are commissions.
My favorite piece is Kutlug Ataman's The Four Seasons of Veronica Read, which transforms a dowdy quantity—a middle-aged English gardener—into a hothouse specimen. Turkish-born Ataman, an explorer of exoticisms, interviewed Read extensively about the 900 or so hippeastrum (amaryllis) bulbs she obsessively cares for in her flat. She is like a lover whose passion has obliterated her and turned her into a servant. When she has an allergic reaction to the bulbs, she won't see a doctor because doctors "have no interest in the hippeastrum." Hundreds of the plants die from a mite infestation, and in her grief, she puts up their photographs. Four video screens, one for each season, are set like petals in the middle of the room. If you stand in the center, all four of her testimonies mix in a manic cacophony. But speakers in the corners of the room allow you to listen to each of her thickety tales.
Paul Morrison's splashy, 150-foot commissioned wall painting is the most obvious candidate to represent expressionist masculinity. But his landscape of silhouettes painted on the walls—from 20-foot pulled weeds to splashy flower faces and evergreen trees in the distance—actually went quiet as I kept looking. They're all black. They're like memorials.
Universal Nonlinear Design's Make Believe is a model of its plan to raise Denny Park to its original height, which would involve the actual hauling of earth and the building of concrete walls. But the project is pure poetry for the City of Seattle. Its antipode in the show is Stephen Vitiello's ethereal installation of a red hammock where visitors can lie next to dreamy pictures of clouds on the wall and listen to a soundscape of a shaman in the forest (a Beuys and Flowers, so to speak).
An astonishingly beautiful white cast-paper folding screen that cordons off one half of one gallery is by Seattle's Jeffry Mitchell, a master of subversive decoration. The screen looks like frosting, but it's full of subtly sexual images that wouldn't be appropriate for a child's birthday party. Walk behind the screen and you come upon three levels of unevenly glazed white ceramic rooms, which are, unfortunately, trapped in a glass vitrine. Sagging, sad-looking figures perform sexual acts, and in one room is a differently suggestive couple: a mop and a bucket. The commissioned installation is called The Tomb of Club Z, after a local bathhouse set to close.
It's a show called Boys and Flowers, so naturally there's a Robert Mapplethorpe drooping tulip and a glowing cactus flower by Morris Graves. Amir Zaki makes a blue-sky death portrait of that suburban casualty, the weeded dandelion. It is Kirsten Stoltmann who is responsible for the show's title. Her video, Boys and Flowers, shows film of teenage boys skateboarding on an indoor half-pipe fading into footage of flowers, all to the sounds of gently rolling guitar music. It plays on the highest wall in the gallery. The boys and the flowers are safe.