David Horowitz and Elizabeth Peyton at Sadie Coles HQ
Review by Beverley Knowles
Nineteenth-century biologist Raoul Francé noted that plants move their bodies just as freely and easily as humans do. We struggle to identify that movement as such, he postulated, because it’s so much slower than our own. From this it was a small step to conclude that plants are capable of intent. Roots move towards moist ground, leaves towards the sun etc.
In 1966, America’s foremost lie-detection examiner, Cleve Backster, on an impulse attached the electrodes of one of his lie detectors to the leaves of his Dracaena Massangeana. The shocking results prompted many years of work, eventually suggesting that plants display emotional response to stimuli in much the same way that animals do. Only more so. Plants are far more sensitive, responding to the thoughts of those in their locale, as well as to their actions. ‘Maybe plants see better without eyes,’ Backster surmised, ‘than humans do with them.’
All this and much much more is investigated in Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s book ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ (1973) a delightfully off the wall investigation into the spiritual and emotional relationships between plants and animals. That book, as well as the writings of Sigmund Freud and the Victorian era anonymous sex diary ‘My Secret Life’, provides the inspiration for the collaborative exhibition of works by Jonathan Horowitz and Elizabeth Peyton currently showing at Sadie Coles HQ.
The show is a peaceful affair, elegantly evocative of times past with a subtle undercurrent of human frictions ever-present. An apparently eclectic selection of paintings, drawings, etchings and sculptural installations criss-crosses the space, bathed in summer light from the vast overhead windows. Some of the works need that light more than others. Horowitz has ‘liberated’ two Bonsai, placing one of these tiny trees - victims, if you will, of our desire to manipulate nature to our own ends, to believe we are in control - into a vast reclaimed wood barrel. Another is placed in an antique tin bath.
A series of eight large grisaille of silhouetted plants, titled after their latin names, quietly wends its way through the exhibition. Created with interior wall paint on linen, these works narrate the story of plants as motif for both the physical interior space and the private introspective space - the home, the emotional landscape and the imagination.
Peyton has made sensitive, interesting portraits, often introducing flowers into the arena of her more familiar subject matter. The head of a young Sigmund Freud, a framed image of dancer Yvonne Rainer within a domestic tableau of plants and cut flowers, a poignant etching of Jonathan in profile overlaid with petals.
The flowers lend themselves well to anthropomorphisation, standing in for difficult or ambiguous emotions, mental and subconscious events; accommodating receptacles for our projections, by turns concealing and revealing at will. In some instances they symbolise sexual relationships, the flower as the reproductive component, that which attracts and allures. In the same vein perhaps they speak of the hidden, those things apparent only to the initiated. Or of secrets darkly concealed behind a veil of riotous colour and form. It’s an engaging show, quietly thoughtful and interesting. An unlikely oasis.