Artists have a natural affinity for gardens. In their shady nooks and rolling expanses, creative types find inspiration, escape or simply something to entice the eye and hand.
Alive with color, shifting light and ever-changing form, gardens have consumed the attention of artists as diverse as Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, abstract painters Joan Mitchell and Jennifer Bartlett and, most famously, Claude Monet, who diverted a stream to nurture the waterlilies that bloom in his late paintings.
This summer, paintings, prints, photos and sculptures by more than 30 talents are featured in “Art of the Garden,” a charming display at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts through Aug. 1. Chosen by the center’s curator, Robert Bowman, from about 200 entries, the show includes about 100 works, allowing most artists to be represented by several pieces, a fact that smartly amplifies the show’s cohesion and focus.
Inspired by blossoms, vistas or the flitting presence of other garden visitors, the artists have focused on single birds and blossoms or, alternatively, fashioned big-picture impressions of meadows and manicured estates. A cluster of elegant porcelain vases — up to 4 feet tall — by ceramicist Ernest Miller stands as the gallery’s sculptural centerpiece, their minimalist shapes and green-and-tawny glazes quietly distilling nature’s exuberance.
Like nature itself, the show offers an abundance of forms, textures and scale shifts. Eric Cornett’s arresting painting “Dove” demands immediate attention at the entrance. With its lovely taupe wings, delicately feathered breast and piercing bronze-black eye, Cornett’s bird is vastly bigger than nature allows, a creature that would have at least a 3-foot wingspan in flight. Though enlarged to Pop proportions, the bird retains a suitable lightness-of-being, thanks to Cornett’s deft way with a brush, that suggests it could almost lift off from its leafy perch and soar.
Likewise Catherine Hearding expertly deploys transparent watercolors to capture the luminosity of fruit and flowers. Her glorious close-up of an apricot-hued iris is a marvel of controlled design, each stroke of peach, coral and pale lemon luring the eye to the heart of the bloom. In “In the Shade,” she adroitly translates the moist blue-green under-leaves of hosta and their dry, sun-scorched tops. And any vintner would treasure her clusters of multi-hued grapes ripening in “At the Vineyard.”
Abstraction and mystery
Sometimes nature simply splashes the senses with color, as does Genie Castro in her monoprint abstractions. In “Modern Rose” she screened white lily-like shapes over a burst of rose-pink, while in “Lush Green” she dashed streaks of black, white and fuchsia onto a delicious field of avocado. Without depicting anything specifically garden-related, her colorful panels suggest the dazzle of a lush landscape in midsummer.
By contrast, Jennifer Bong turns nature into a dreamy, indoor reverie in her hand-tinted silver-gelatin photos. Using the notched edges of negatives as framing devices, she prints her images — of columbine, snowdrops, hollyhock — with some parts in focus and other portions softened or filtered. Then she tints them in pale tones of pinkish-taupe that nicely accentuate the nostalgic innocence of the old-fashioned flowers.
With her bold use of encaustic — pigments mixed into wax — Bonnie Cutts turns floral imagery into sturdy, tile-like constructions whose milky luminosity comes from overlapping layers of rich color — a yellow bloom floating on a ground of red or blue-gray shadowed with olive green. Though her thick textures seem intuitively wrong for their fragile, transient subjects, the paintings have a robust vitality that works.
While most garden artists ply their trade in summer, Thomas D. Nye cleverly pushes the seasons in “Wire Tomato Hoops in Garden,” a tall, narrow painting that seems at first to be a pure abstraction. Divided into irregular geometric shapes, the mostly white canvas is enlivened with dashes of aqua and blue that upon reflection appear as blobs of wet snow falling onto tomato supports.
As for the bigger picture, Kami Mendlik-Polzin looks across a meadow spotted with white wildflowers and spies a small white house tucked behind a copse of dark trees. Her soft, blurry foreground skillfully echoes the loose, atmospheric effects of 19th-century American painter George Inness, while the picture’s ambiguous title, “The Story,” hints at a mysterious narrative.
Like summer days themselves, these are images to savor and enjoy for their simple beauty.