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As most any high school poet can tell you: flowers die, and that’s a metaphor. The unpacking of the beauty in preservation and decay is on display in Hiberna Flores, a colorful two-woman show at Oakland University Art Gallery featuring large-scale botanical photography by Laurie Tennent in conversation with a living (and dying!) installation piece by floral artist Lisa Waud, of pot & box.

HB1"Hiberna Flores" installation view. Photo courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.“An exciting part of this project was the frisson of a photograph of a flower next to the living object,” said curator and Oakland University Art Gallery Director Dick Goody, in an email interview following a gallery tour. “And how, over time, the balance shifts from a clinical photographic image of a bloom, which is the role of the indexed image placed beside the real thing, to a situation where the real flowers wither and die.” 

OU exhibit 10Photo courtesy of Laurie Tennent.Waud’s installation has three pieces: a proscenium of branches and hanging flowers that act as a gateway into the main gallery; the central installation—what were mostly withered remains of a jumble of logs and branches when viewed two weeks after the exhibit’s January 7th opening; and a small, altar-like structure in the second gallery, which held one remaining live plant in a kind of worshipful stasis under a glass dome. These pieces, continuously fading and changing throughout the exhibition run, stand in sharp contrast to Tennent’s macro-focused floral compositions on black backgrounds, the subjects caught at the peak of their vitality and beauty.

“At this point,” Goody says, referring to the ongoing decay of the live flowers, “the meaning of the photographs starts to slip. It was this slippage that hooked me. For one thing, the photographs become more fecund (in relation to their dying antecedents). For another, they begin to act as memento mori, and their role becomes poetic rather than objective or objectified.” 

Memento mori translates literally as, “Remember you have to die,” and has a long history within classical painting. Momento mori will often manifest as an object within a still life (which also often feature vibrant and blooming flowers)—such as a skull, an hourglass, or a piece of rotting meat—as a reminder to the viewer of the finite nature of all earthly matters. Still life painting is one of many influences Tennent draws upon in her botanical portraiture.

“I am influenced by Dutch still life painting and by the chiaroscuro lighting effects,” said Tennent by email. “The work is photographic in process, by using light to capture the image, but painterly in its large-scale canvas-like presentation.” Tennent also cites Karl Blossfeldt, a German photographer and sculptor working in the early 1900s, among her influences, “and of course the sensual work of Georgia O’Keefe.”

Hiberna Flores is a multi-sensory experience, with the live plants presenting not only a visual and textural counterpoint to the photographs, but adding an aspect of aroma and movement as well. A musical score by Sean Blackman invites the visitor to sit, listen, and experience the works. And OU took the extreme step of fulfilling Tennent’s wish to paint the entire gallery a matte black, instead of the standard white gallery space. Against this background, every subject pops and seems to vibrate in the space, offering the viewer a very intimate context within which to meditate on these close examinations of living structures. 

“It is interesting to visit the show over a period of time, watching the flowers dry, and the textures of Lisa's installation change. Life and death, real and record, the beauty and fragility of the cycle of life unfolds."

“One viewer commented he felt like he was interrupting the flowers as they exposed themselves out of the darkness,” said Tennent. “It is interesting to visit the show over a period of time, watching the flowers dry, and the textures of Lisa's installation change. Life and death, real and record, the beauty and fragility of the cycle of life unfolds.”

OU exhibit 13Photo courtesy of Laurie Tennent.Though Goody acknowledges the complicated process of blacking out the entire gallery space, “I never thought about challenges because both of the participants are consummate professionals. Hanging pictures is a skillful business, but that's my job. The living plants I very quickly realized would be handled by someone who knows everything about the subject; Lisa Waud is the best. As for dying flowers, apart from the joy of seeing these newly installed flowers bloom themselves to death, I was most interested in their decay.”

Waud is perhaps best known in the region for her October 2015 installation, “Flower House”—a temporary project during which florists from Michigan and across the country filled the walls and ceilings of an abandoned Detroit house with American-grown fresh flowers and living plants. The installation garnered great acclaim and an estimated 3,000+ visitors during the week-long run.

“Dick Goody approached myself and Lisa Waud for his idea of the exhibition, not knowing that we knew each other,” recalls Tennent. “Flower House Detroit was an amazing project that filled an abandoned house with flowers from various artists, raised money from touring the exhibit, to eventually removing the house and planting a flower farm in its place. I was very excited about the opportunity to work with Lisa!” Together, this two-woman show offers much beauty on the surface, as well as some depth to reflect on the moodier aspects of life and death. 

“I feel that these extraordinary photographs are important and deserve greater attention, not necessarily for their poetic octane, which is powerful, but more for the fact that they exist at all,” said Goody. “And that an artist like Laurie Tennent has the genius and diligence to make them and ultimately overcome all the prejudices that the innocent flower image is inevitably subjected to.” 

“Flowers—innocent—humanity,” he continued. “Who are we to judge?”

OU exhibit 07Photo courtesy of Laurie Tennent.Hiberna Flores is on view at the Oakland University Art Gallery through February 19th. There is an Artists' Talk and Catalogue Launch on Sunday, February 12th at 2pm. For more information, click here