Any farmer or gardener will tell you, witchgrass is the most pernicious of weeds. Each season, its panicle fans out and drops seeds on the wind that spread far and wide. It is resistant to many common herbicides and impossible to control in open crop fields.

Louise Gluck’s poem, “Witchgrass,” which gives Speedwell Projects’ current exhibition its name, speaks in the plant’s voice:

I don’t need your praise
To survive. I was here first,
Before you were here, before
You ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
Are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

The show (through Oct. 30) features multimedia works by four women – Josephine Chase, Karen Gelardi, Hilary Irons and Juliet Karelsen – and concerns itself with the resilience of nature (hence the witchgrass metaphor) but also its fragile struggle to survive human intrusions on the natural world.

Chase’s work, which hangs in the street windows and is best viewed from outside the gallery, has an elegiac quality to it. Her statement informs us that she was “motivated by the impact that artifacts of migration and relocation have on our landscapes.” The works repurpose parts of an abandoned family car, which as material objects represent something left behind as family members move on to new lives.

Josphine Chase, “Passenger I,” Acrylic on metal, 4’ x 4’, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist

Their discarded presence contributes to a certain melancholy that pervades the works. These objects are forgotten, impotent, devoid of relevant function or meaning in the world. Chase heightens their sense of impermanence by painting layer upon layer of patterns inspired by domestic floral fabrics and wallpapers on the car doors. The homes in which these fabrics and wallpapers reside, of course, are symbols of settling and roosting, vain human attempts at stability and permanence.

The unstoppable growth, as well as Chase’s photographs of the painted car parts abandoned in fields, suggest something much larger: the temporality of all human endeavor in the face of nature, which in time grows over these car doors, eventually making them invisible under blankets of weeds and brush. As the poem predicts, plants now “constitute the field,” obscuring traces of human life.

Karen Gelardi, “Components, In the Outside, and “Ground Control With Components,” ink, fabric, thread, reflective piping and transfers, 2019 (with pieces from 2007). Photo courtesy of the gallery

This sort of tenacious plant life and persistent growth is also expressed in Karen Gelardi’s pieces. In her statement, the artist says, “modular units, reproduction, variety and mutation are essential elements in a resilient system.” Indeed, plants are based on cell structures that mutate and adapt in response to environmental conditions, care or neglect, insects or disease, applications of chemicals and so on.

Many of her fiber sculptures replicate patterns formed using repetitions of modular components on fabrics that are stuffed and sewn into soft sculptures. The forms of these sculptures are often cylindrical, sometimes with a ramate stub protruding from them, and can recall branch parts, fibers, stamens, plant cells or other plant parts. Others, such as a length of colorful rope hung on a hook, can suggest root systems.

Yet there is also fragility and endangerment to consider, and these come through strongly in Karelsen’s colorful flowers made of yarn and felt.

They were created initially as a response to the pandemic, a way to escape disease and death into a world of beauty and fantasy. But by presenting them under bell jars, they leave a darker impression of being rare, probably extinct species of flora preserved against the corrosive effects of a ruined environment. They emphasize, her statement reads “the fact that an infinite reserve of our forests, flowers, plants, trees, bees, glaciers, animals, birds, seas and air is not a reality. It is indeed a fantasy.”

Some of these blossoms might also be eerie hybrids, the results of capricious human intervention. “Plaid Lotus” and “Public Domain Polka Dot” seem like exotic blooms from a surreal dream. They are not natural. Rather, they are out of sync with the natural world, bizarre experiments meant to appease the fancies of people.

Juliet Karelsen, “Bee Flower Quilt,” 2021

Another group of Karelsen’s works is called the Flowers Bees Love series. For each, she reproduced favorite flowers that attracted bees – borage, lilacs, rugosa roses, Joe Pye weed – in cyanotype images developed onto fabric. Then she used these to create quilt hangings, the upholstery for a chair and wallpaper.

The works are meant to comment on colony collapse disorder that has been killing off bee populations. Initially attributed to pesticides, scientists have pointed to many other factors, including invasive mites, parasites, new diseases and viruses, and loss of habitat. But some of the cyanotypes also give the flowers a ghostly appearance that makes them feel bygone. These are contrasted with blossoms more vividly rendered in bright colors with embroidered details. The result is an interesting tension between what’s here and what’s gone, what survives and what doesn’t.

Finally, Hilary Irons paints flora and fauna in which plants form dense networks and systems that seem to communicate with each other in some secret language. Her paintings are interested in deciphering the messages they are sending.

“What is the message of a certain outline, or an edge, or a hanging fringe or a transparent bubble?” she wrote in an email. “The unguessable nature of natural forms, especially plant forms, is the best kind of fuel for my imagination, since there is no way I could concoct it on my own.” We are invited to wonder what truths plants can communicate to us.

Plants also stand in for larger universal phenomena. In “The Motherwort Boundary,” for instance, plants appear to form a kind of cosmic Milky Way-like constellation that spreads across the canvas. “Home is the Hunter” shows a donkey standing on ground unaware that beneath its hooves is an entire universe of life that includes plants, animals and stars.

The title is taken from an epitaph on a gravestone in Cynthia Voigt’s children’s novel “Homecoming,” but its origin is Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Requiem,” which speaks of death as our deepest longing:

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

For Irons, death is a deliverance into a world more lush and alive than that of the living.

Hilary Irons, “Watching Out,” oil, acrylic, and marble dust on panel, 16” x 16”, 2021. Photo courtesy of the gallery

In other paintings, such as “Teasel Lantern” and “Watching Out,” architecture derived from the places where she was painting the work – windows, arched doorways – feel like portals into other dimensions of existence. Several paintings also feature a candle and flame, perhaps suggesting the eternal perseverance of nature throughout time. The plant world for Irons becomes a sort of transitionary state between our constructed reality and deeper truths of the universe.

One work, “Depth Charges,” stands out from the others. It consists of cut paper seaweed forms floating above drawings of actual depth charges. It may seem unrelated in its singularity. But, in fact, it conveys the same message of the persistence of nature over human existence.

The former is, of course, a plant form, the latter manmade. Standing before them, we feel the weight of these metal cannisters, which seem to pull us downward as the seaweed floats free on the surface. The depth charges are destructive objects that drown us, while the seaweed lives unencumbered, drawing nourishment from the saltwater.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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