Strange Plants: Artists Exploring the Seduction Flora

At times picturesque, at times sinister, and often aloofly sensual, Strange Plants explores foliage as a site for fantasy and perverse imagination. As the inaugural title for her publishing house Zioxla, Zio Baritaux’s book is a series of contemporary artists’ reflections on flora that includes both works and interviews. Curated like an eclectic garden of images, the book features a wide range of specimens – from painting, to photography, to tattoo art.

Filled with the mysterious contours of parasitic vines and undulating cactuses, Strange Plants is a twisted departure from our tired, quotidian vision of vegetation – a world away from the sad office ficus, from the museum-issued Monet Water Lillies calendar, from the 1950s anxiety-dream of floral aprons and wallpaper. It is an invitation to give in to the quiet seduction of flora.

032c spoke with Zio Baritaux about her book and the compelling allure of plant life.

Shot in a paparazzi-style camera flash, the blossoms in David Axelbank’s Night Flowers have the smutty guilt of club denizens caught in the act.

Shot in a paparazzi-style camera flash, the blossoms in David Axelbank’s “Night Flowers” have the smutty guilt of club denizens caught in the act.

What do you think makes plants so “strange”? Where does their mystery come from in your view?

I think one of the reasons plants seem so strange and mysterious is that we are so far removed from them. French post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau, who was too poor to travel to the lush jungles he painted, once said, “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.” Because we can’t communicate with plants, their colors and shapes are open to interpretation. We can project our own strange ideas onto them.

In your introduction to Strange Plants, you say that each artist’s experience of plants is different. But what were some of the specific, common sources of fascination amongst the artists you spoke with?

 Like me, most of the artists profiled in the book live in large cities – such as San Francisco, Stockholm, and Seoul – and keep plants in their homes or studios. Paul Wackers, for example, has more than 30 plants in his studio in New York, and he said that they bring a certain calmness to that space. He also said that he loves to stare at their shapes and let his mind wander. Plants are sources of inspiration. They are wonderful muses. I think that’s the common thread among the artists – they are fascinated, even enchanted, with plants’ colors and shapes. I mean, why are artists fascinated with women? Why did Picasso paint Marie-Therese and Koons sculpt Cicciolina? It was because of the way they look, their colors and shapes. It wasn’t because they were interesting to talk to.

Helene Schmitz’s "Kudzu Project" portrays the savage side of photosynthesis with her ghostly images of forests swallowed whole by parasitic vines.

Helene Schmitz’s “Kudzu Project” portrays the savage side of photosynthesis with her ghostly images of forests swallowed whole by parasitic vines.

When thinking about plants and art, our minds seem conditioned to jump straight to time-worn poetry about flowers and  “fleeting beauty.” How have contemporary artists who work with plants played around with those types of clichés?

Many contemporary artists have moved past photographing or painting plants in clichéd ways. For example, Taylor McKimens’s work focuses on cactuses and succulents that have been weather-beaten and destroyed by human hands. He paints gooey, gruesome plants plunked inside beer bottles and collapsed over on their sides. He wants to make work that is real and not romanticized. Helene Schmitz is another great example. She takes eerie, mesmeric photos of the kudzu vine, which grows up to a foot day and smothers other plant life. She photographs this plant because she’s interested in the idea of plants being intrusive, and the violent relationship between man and nature.

The blank cover of Strange Plants can be decorated with the adhesive images that are included inside the volume.

The blank cover of Strange Plants can be decorated with the adhesive images that are included inside the volume.

What inspired the rather unique cover design of this book? Was it meant to be a type of garden?

I didn’t think of the cover as being a sort of garden, but now that you say that, I see how that fits and I love that observation. However, I did view curating the book in the same way someone looks at planting a garden. You don’t plant a garden with one type of flower—you plant a variety of species that bloom at different times but work within the environment that you live.

Do you have any plants that you would suggest for the workshop at 032c?

I think the Passiflora racemosa would be a good mascot for 032c. Its petals are the same color as the cover of the magazine, but it also has an unusual purple-and-white center that is very avant-garde. It’s odd, in a sexy kind of way, and elegant. It also needs to grow behind glass in temperate regions, so it’s perfect for the workshop’s vitrine.


The second (and final) edition of Baritaux’s Strange Plants is available now through Zioxla.


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