Since the late nineteenth century, floral imagery has often served the artist as effective camouflage for innovative practices: a means of carrying out experiments with form and expression while remaining squarely within the realm of representation. Because of their tremendous range of colors and shapes, flowers can, in other words, be employed by the artist to induce almost purely aesthetic experiences without alienating viewers who are unaccustomed to venturing beyond the immediately recognizable in art. In the late paintings of the symbolist Odilon Redon or the well-known water lily studies of Monet at Giverny, flowers supply the more mundane explanation for why a particular shape or color appears where it does in compositions that ultimately have less to do with botany or landscape than with perception, association and emotion. Ikebana and garden design could be thought of similarly as essentially abstract arts in which flowers come close to being purely formal elements and the driving factor is concern for expression. In art, flowers are almost never merely flowers. Their emotive potential as forms is too difficult to resist for any artist who aspires to more than pedantic transcription of nature.
Given the usefulness of flowers as formal elements in expressive art, it is no doubt significant that Minneapolis artist Judith Kinghorn developed the distinctive floral vocabulary of her recent jewelry only after years of working in a more architecturally inspired vein in which representation did not figure. In the early 1990s, for example, the style of her work was appropriate for the commission she received to produce one hundred thirty-five pins commemorating the opening of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities’ Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, a Frank Gehry stainless-steel-skinned construction of gleaming convergent planes. Aesthetically, Kinghorn’s pins responded directly to her impressions of the new building’s manipulation of space, the effects it produced with reflected light and the hard, smooth surfaces of its exterior. These she extracted, transformed and integrated into her own composition according to principles of design worked out in the numerous previous contexts of her jewelry.
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