The Secret Life of Plants: A Review of “A Study of Flora” at Alex Ferrone Gallery

"Tobago Tides (#3 from Triptych)" by Nijole Kudirka at Alex Ferrone Gallery
"Tobago Tides (#3 from Triptych)" by Nijole Kudirka at Alex Ferrone Gallery

Alex Ferrone Gallery recently displayed A Study of Flora in Cutchogue to rave reviews. Hear what one critic had to say, and look forward to what the gallery has in store next.

"Column" by Pamela Waldroup at Alex Ferrone Gallery
“Column” by Pamela Waldroup at Alex Ferrone Gallery

When I walked into the supremely rewarding “gray gallery” featuring four superb photographs by Pamela Waldroup and a knockout painting by Constance Sloggatt Wolf, I turned and told director Alex Ferrone that it was one of those installations that become engraved instantly in the memory. Similar experiences from my days as a critic in the city (the galleries were Peter Blum, Matthew Marks, Danese and Boesky) left me with a work-by-work mental checklist and installation shot that, as in this case, were testimony to a deft curatorial hand as well as an uncanny sympathy between artists in juxtaposition. What makes this particular room all the more notable, of course, is that it combines four large black-and-white photographs by Waldroup with a stunningly chromatic painting by Wolf, mixing oil with vinegar, in a photography gallery no less!

The leafy link between Waldroup’s sinuous hostas and Wolf’s ribbon-like brushstrokes is the overarching theme of flora in all their baroque elegance. The language of abstraction helps bridge the gap. Waldroup, who studied with Stan Brodsky, will always have over me a handy coup because I once chose the chambered nautilus of one of her greatest photographs for an award in a group show, not even recognizing the spiral stair up and down which I run a hundred times a day at my museum. This Ovidean triumph of defamiliarization (in the sense that Arthur Danto meant when he called art the “transfiguration of the commonplace”) over mundane recognition is enjoyed once again in her “Organic Reactions.” You will never look at the hostas in your garden the same way again.

As for the rhapsody in reds and oceanic blues that Wolf unleashes, it is unabashed colorism at its finest, whipping through hairpin turns without downshifting, the breeze blowing its mane back like a banshee. The incandescent reds and oranges at its lower right corner, and especially a seam of molten red that descends along a diagonal, pulse with the kind of power that I admire in a painting by Hedda Sterne that is in my current exhibition—she packed so much power that she was the only woman included in the famed photograph of the Abstract Expressionists called “The Irascibles.”

"Lief, Life, Love" by Constance Sloggatt Wolf at Alex Ferrone Gallery
“Lief, Life, Love” by Constance Sloggatt Wolf at Alex Ferrone Gallery

Wolf’s painting will call to mind not just Georgia O’Keeffe (tame by comparison, actually), but her friends Charles Burchfield and Arthur Dove. I was almost dismayed by a kind message I had from her, recognizing its truth (the “art world” is not turning out bold, brave “straight paintings” like this very often) at the same time that I was grateful for the chance to see this unforgettable painting. “’Lief, Life, Love’ was one of the most validating experiences as a painter that I have had in a very long time. The current art world is so diverse in terms of media and content that straight paintings, content notwithstanding, are often overlooked.”

Waldroup and Wolf, who happen to be good friends, gave the core of this fine exhibition its beating heart. Their formidable technique matches their visionary poetry in a dialogue nothing less than heroic. The forms may whirl but the axis always holds. When a poet writes a book about science, watch out. Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants is a garden of metaphors, so many of which would serve as epigraphs to this exhibition. His sense of wonder at the monumental complexity of flora is a fitting caption for an installation image of this gallery—“Nature!… She creates needs because she loves action. Wondrous that she produces all this action so easily! Every need is a benefit, swiftly satisfied, swiftly renewed. Every fresh want is a new source of pleasure, but she soon reaches an equilibrium.”

Charles A. Riley II, PhD, is an art critic and director of the Nassau County Museum of Art.

Alex Ferrone Gallery is located at 25425 Main Road, Cutchogue. Call 631-734-8545 or visit alexferronegallery.com for more info. The gallery’s next show, the Winter Small Works Exhibition, opens on Saturday, December 5 and features the work of 41 artists. 

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