A garden is a place with an abundance of beauty but a deficit of irony. It wears its heart on its leaves.
A rose, for example, isn’t a metaphor for the delicacy of the human condition, or the ability to change and resurrect and inspire. It’s simply a rose, and that’s OK; who doesn’t love a rose?
Artist Kevin Sloan and curator Jen Tobias seemed to have a keen understanding of this organic truth when they were putting together “Radiant Season,” Sloan’s current exhibit of acrylic paintings at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ new indoor gallery. In creating a body of work specifically for the space, the question must have come up: What can a series of paintings add to a garden setting that trees and flowers cannot?
Their answer: something less obvious, and more confrontational, pictures that honor the wonders of the non-animal ecosystem but challenge the basic notion that it exists to only please our eyes and noses, and that it can serve as a mechanism leading us to deeper thinking.
If you go
“Radiant Season: Paintings by Kevin Sloan” continues through July 11 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St. Check with the garden for current admission policies. Info: 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org.
So he painted weeds, and stray sunflowers, cut logs, volunteer hollyhocks, dead things.
In “Radiant Season,” the star of the show is the painting — more a portrait, really — titled “Blessed Thistle.” Here the most vile of garden intruders, the enemy of suburban lawn keepers across the land, is treated in the same way Titan might have painted a portrait of a pope in the 16th century or Cezanne might have captured a still life of oranges and apples hundreds of years later.
Sloan’s thistle is front and center in the painting, and thereby honored for its good looks and hard work, for its fortitude and confidence, for its ability to produce tiny pink blossoms carrying the seeds that will ensure the survival of the species long into the future.
That’s a lot to say about a plant most people deride as invasive, but there is a lot of truth to the idea. Any flora that prospers without tending, or fertilizer, or the hope that so many of us bestow on our flower beds every summer, certainly deserves our respect.
It also reminds us of the things we respect about nature overall, beyond the fact that it is pretty and precious: its ability to endure against something as small as a weed whacker and as large as climate change, to prevail through plagues of beetles and fogs of herbicide.
Those qualities are things we falsely project on nature, of course. A plant isn’t brave and everybody understands that; it can only follow the genetic instructions it was born with. Rather, its mettle reminds us of the qualities we admire in humans. With this focus on the prickly thistle, Sloan is indeed turning plants into metaphors and giving us a whole new reason to adore them.
As a painter, Sloan has done this work of transforming the essence of things for decades, usually with animals and often with a sense of humor. One of his best-known works features an elephant performing a handstand on a house of cards. Another — a mural near Colorado Boulevard and 8th Avenue in Denver — depicts a giant, white bear balancing precariously on an electrical wire hung high above a cityscape.
There’s an obvious chuckle in these scenes with their huge, clunky mammals in delicate acts of derring-do. But there’s also a sense of danger for these animals (that are sometimes endangered). That electrical wire, for example, is really a couple of orange extension cords that are on the brink of unplugging from one another. One sudden move and it’s goodbye, bear.
There’s a magical realism to the work as well as a sense of quietness and mystery. His subject matter is dramatic but his palette is often muted and his backgrounds low-lit and cloudy. There’s no need for brilliant colors when you are already shocking viewers with scenes of animals doing circus tricks.
There is less shock in the scenes he presents in “Radiant Season,” though there’s still a sensationalism to the paintings, especially in the context of the vast, expertly tended botanic gardens that surround the gallery building. Sloan’s wheelbarrow full of wilted, discolored blooms in the piece “A Future Monument” definitely stands out in a place where the hardiness of nature is put on full display.
So does the stand of sunflowers that look to have cropped up uninvited behind a lawn chair in “A View of Talisman Hill.” Or the orange-red poppies that appear to pop out of an old cardboard box in “The Delivery.” There’s a disorganized randomness that is in sharp contrast to adjacent attractions like DBG’s orderly Japanese Garden or its sharp-edged lily pond.
That’s part of what makes the show a fascinating diversion or, maybe better said, a swell addition to a garden visit. Sloan’s paintings can appear simple — “Another Year of Rhubarb,” for example, is simply six rhubarb sprouts popping up from the ground within the confines of a wire plant cage that will eventually support their growth. There’s no splendor to it, and as with a lot of these paintings, little actual joy.
But such scenes are actually confrontational in a garden where visitors are less interested in the process of plant growth and more focused on the wow of a dahlia bed in full bloom.
That’s the delight of this exhibit. It defines “radiant” on its own terms. It reconfigures the role of plants and flowers in our lives. It turns objects of beauty into symbols. It’s an argument for irony.
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