Seeing a Plant: Being a Plant

Exhibition review Stephanie Radok Greenaway Gallery, Adelaide SA 11 September - 6 October 1996

Stephanie Radok's show at Greenaway had both a fanciful and a 'grounded' aspect. The painted-plaster pieces gathered under the titles Life on Mars and Mouths of Memory in Gallery 2 were small items, pigment scored roughly with outlines of generic botanical shapes, and individually titled so as to underscore the impression of elemental flora: 'lily', 'calyx', 'stamens', etc. These were essential vegetable forms, the burnt-ochre and rust earth-tones providing a similarly basic/universal 'ground'. Yet, for all their global prevalence, in outline or essence these forms seem alien, as the artist spells out with the umbrella-title reference to alien life. Although they occur all over the earth, somehow they remain weird, unearthly, they look like 'nothing on earth'.

The rather larger Mouths of Memory plaster pieces have titles like Wheat/Opening or Correa/Splitting, and are rather less static than the Life on Mars series, suggest sprouting or erupting of plant life.
Both material and technique contribute to give the plaster pieces an air of domestic icons of a cheerful kind: in keeping with the primordial fertility theme, they retain rough edges, and the engraving style has a deliberately reductive simplicity and two-dimensionality.
In Gallery 3, Radok's drawings, thirty or so graphite-on-cartridge works, set up a witty interplay between botanical taxonomical language and an adherence to a kind of Biology 1 sketchbook-style. Again, many of the specimens of flora rendered so flatly and scholastically have such bizarre features as to suggest alien life-forms. It's difficult to determine, without having recourse to Black's Flora of South Australia, which the artist acknowledges, whether all the specimens are drawn from life or embellished out of Radok's fancy. Inviting such speculation, the line-drawings are at once appealing, strangely vulnerable-seeming and amusing in their fidelity to textbook botanical style: uninterrupted, confident freehand, mostly outline only, some careful single-hatched shading.

Radok is playing with the botanist's devoted fidelity to 'nature', faithfully imitating it and acknowledging the reverent posture it implies, while conducting a fanciful language-game by constructing titles for the drawings out of translations of parts of Greek botanical taxonomy. Thus a strange and unidentifiable, filament-haired, bulbous cross-section, graphically stated with the peculiar, tutored flatness of the science-student's drawing style, has a suggestive label like 'ekballo/I throw out', or 'eremophiles/loving solitude'. Even part-time gardeners will recognise, say, the reference to the etymological derivation of eremophilia, but Radok seems to have used translated components of Greek plant-names for their resonance, their potency as imaginative triggers. So her assiduous observation (or invention?) of outlandish, exotic plant forms in the approved scholarly manner have a piquancy both in themselves and in conjunction with their assigned names.

Radok says her work in this show is an attempt 'to study miniature parts of my immediate surroundings'. The results, especially multiplied on the gallery walls in the unaccented, homogeneous chosen style, apparently bloodless and objective, 'scientific', provoke a smile. The eye of the naturalist is not objective but impassioned: the botanist's quest is to uncover pattern, design, function, behaviour, the articulation of the organism under scrutiny. There is something comforting about the very alienness of these magnified vegetable forms, manifold and multiple and proliferating unnoticed around humans busy forging much more bizarre life-structures in their large-scale world. Remarking on the effect of close inspection of miniature parts of one's surroundings, Radok writes that "something small can fill the scope of the eye and of thought." What she is after seems to be a lost child's vision, before adult projects come to dominate waking consciousness. There is something of that in her thick, careful, confident outlines; 'Nature Study' drawings with the observing self abstracted.

Perfect and inscrutable in their strange designs, the vegetable forms sit flatly on their quasi-textbook pages in their frames on the gallery walls, tantalising in their unrecognisable close-up aspect, with mystical-seeming names attached ('pikros/bitter'; 'potamus/river'; athanasia/immortality'; 'limne/lake'). Their attractiveness consists in the apparent absence of an artist's 'take' coupled with the invocation of the elemental or mysterious, maybe even of A Grand Design. They seem to offer some kind of truth, maybe nothing more than the possibility of the effect Radok describes: the filling of consciousness by close observation of something small, whose self-sufficiency and inherent otherness eventually seems to partake of some mystical significance. This was one of the mystics' techniques, after all.

But the 'truth-claims', such as they are, are undercut by an inescapable drollness about the deadpan renderings of such weird items, glossed only by obscure and poetic titles.

The balance between reverence (of a kind) and humour in these drawings is engaging, the artist's project both clever and charming. The other theme invoked by Radok in her brief comment is memory: 'Memory, without exact recall, is like a mouth moving across my skin'. There is a sensual quality about these lines on paper: deliberate, loving, undoctored. The effect of the repeated series of strange but intensely, subconsciously familiar structural plant forms is to tweak the real or imagined, sustaining memory (childhood or race-memory?) of a time when we may have felt continuous, as life-forms, with the vegetable kingdom...