Botanicum Series II

06/08/2022 - 27/08/2022

John Pastoriza-Pinol
Paeonia suffruticosa (Wu Jin Yao Hui)

2021

watercolour on Arches 300gsm paper

25.00 x 20.00 cm

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Botanicum Series II

d When asked by John to write something to accompany the occasion of this exhibition I was most struck by Vis Combinatorum. Like much still life, a genre very close to that of botanical art (indeed they are often one and the same), it is a work rich with allusions to different symbolic languages. John has engaged with the practice of vanitas, a tradition which emerges during the Dutch Golden Age (1588 to 1672), the Dutch being the masters of still life. Vanitas, literally vanity, or emptiness, use devices such wilting flowers, decaying fruit, flies, skulls, guttering candles, and clocks to remind viewers of the passing of time and the inevitability of death and decline. They are part of the longer tradition of memento mori, literally reminders that we all die, found throughout European culture from classical times.

There is no clearer symbol of this than the skull, which John has chosen to paint in silver, evoking the diamond encrusted platinum of For the Love of God, by Damien Hirst. There is no clearer reminder of mortality than the skull: its anonymity and uniformity remind us all of the inevitability and modesty of death. Looking at this dark skull, unsentimental yet beautiful, I can’t help but place it in the context of John’s leather aesthetic. Leather culture is deeply masculine, hugging and emphasising the body’s lines, evoking motorcycles – that phallic surrogate supreme – and embracing a sexuality that flirts at the threshold between pleasure and pain. It is tempered, however, by the complexity of gay subjectivities. The leather scene is not toxic, like the outlaw motorcycle culture that it riffs upon. This is not a culture of exclusion and hate, but one of ironies, paradoxes and dualities. Leather has the thrill of danger certainly, and, historically, a rejection of the idea that gay culture was passive and effeminate (leather fully embraces the maleness of muscles and fur). But there is also the sense of community, costume and knowing performance that has none of the hysterical and isolationist fragility of toxic, heteronormative machismo. Vis Combinatorum, like leather, balances paradoxes. For the symbol of the skull is the least ambiguous of those John has chosen.

The botanical elements are, of course, central to the work and John has chosen two of his favourites: anemones and the pomegranate. Pomegranates themselves are the botanical symbol par excellence, a staple of the still life tradition. It has been remarked, to the point of tedium, that fruit in art speaks to fertility and abundance. Fruit and flowers are often deployed as symbolic of genitalia and reproduction. Separate to still life, the pomegranate was used by Botticelli, among many others, in depictions of the Madonna and child, doubling down on the fertility expressed by this symbol of motherhood. Certainly, those readings remain in John’s deeply sensuous, work. But I am also reminded of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (yes, low hanging fruit – pun intended), famous for his unapologetic and tough gay aesthetic as well as his exquisite botanical studies. The combination of the two in Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre help us to see each anew, and as not so far apart.

Then there are the anemones. These exquisite little flowers have attracted many meanings over history, but in the spirit of our theme of dualities I will highlight Shakespeare’s use of the myth of Venus and Adonis in his poem of the same name. As Venus knelt weeping over the body of Adonis, she cursed love, of which she was the goddess, to be forever entangled with suffering and jealousy.

Nestled among the botanicals are the artificial elements, the products of the hand. Beginning at the right there is an exquisitely rendered Chinoiserie ginger jar with Chrysanthemums curling in relief. Whilst these flowers have been associated with Japanese royalty for some centuries, in China they symbolise long life and, once again, fertility. These echoes of binaries and balance – life and death, fertility and decay – are replete throughout this work. Further along the shelf lies what appears to be a fragment of a Hindu sculpture with the fingers curled into the apana mudra, holding a tiny bound book, with a rose centred on its cover. This is a hasta mudra, literally in Sanskrit a hand (hasta) seal (mudra), a sacred gesture used in yoga and meditation. It has a number of applications within ayurvedic practice, but its primary function is that of cleansing and unblocking digestive and reproductive pathways. Like all the mudras, it seeks balance. Here, the hand holds a tiny volume: one might imagine it to be one of the Vedas (the seminal Ayurvedic texts), or in this eclectic composition a bible or otherwise sacred text. It could also be, I think, a book of flowers; a tiny volume of works by Pierre-Joseph Redouté would be in keeping.

Then, there stands at the end of the ledge, itself a symbol of antiquity and ruin, an obelisk of amethyst. Calling back to the ivy of Dionysus, amethyst was named by the Greeks who carved wine goblets from it in the belief that it could protect its owner from drunkenness. Its name literally means ‘not drunken’. In crystal lore it has come to be more widely interpreted as keeping one grounded. Linking back to our mudra, for Tibetans it is
associated with the Buddha, and they carve prayer beads from it for this reason.

Continuing with the classical allusions is the obelisk itself, long interpreted by the West as symbolic of virile state power (Washington monument, the awful stone and concrete monstrosity that is the Burke and Wills monument in Royal Park). The 19 th century craze for the obelisk is traceable to the Egyptian culture that Europe was busy looting at the time. The form is much older in Egyptian culture, 5000 years old in fact. The Egyptians named them ‘tekhenu’, meaning to pierce. For the Egyptians it was the pedestal from which the god Akum observed the making of the world. In time it came to be a representation of the duality and balance so central to Egyptian cosmology (obelisks were typically erected in pairs at temple entrances in Egypt). With an apparently phallic allusion, John calls us back to his theme of balance.

Further portals to the work, and its classical allusions, can be found in both the engraving Fecit xxii (he made 2021), and the title Vis Combinatorum (power combination). The gentle play of signifiers continues here, the gendered attribution and the naming of power both speak of masculinity in the midst of this composition which borrows and blends to create a harmony of soft and hard, flower and stone, fertility and entropy.

Finally, faintly seen peeking through from the reverse of the page is a curling, botanical, ornamental motif. This gesture is in the same vein as the Brexit series seen in this exhibition, where we find crowns, coats of arms, spiked crosses and stars decorating the central pomegranate motif. This use of ornamental motifs throughout John’s work recalls the period prior to the industrial revolution in which the decorative and fine arts were not so divided as they became in the modern period. As Modernism adopted its quasi-rationalist embrace of the scientific age, ornament was eschewed as mere decoration.

For an artist in the botanical tradition, ornamentation is not a dirty word and beauty for its own sake is not suspect. This dimension of John’s work draws our attention to the rich history of ornamentation with its specific uses and meanings that stretched from antiquity through the Renaissance and into the Baroque period. Artists and thinkers like Christopher Dresser and William Morris fought a rear-guard battle against the loss of these traditions and understandings in their design work. But modernist architecture and design, after a brief flirtation with Art Nouveau, embraced the cleanliness of geometry, the degree zero of ornament. For botanical artists however, beauty cannot be shunned: they invite us always to look more closely, to shut down our need to read and analyse and open to the fleeting beauty of the living world.


Associate Professor Dominic Redfern
School of Art, RMIT University
June 2022

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