Feral Flora: Recent Paintings by Jane Abrams

by Peter S. Briggs

During the last decade Jane Abrams has gradually adjusted the saturated, deep impasto of her pensive narratives and dream-like accounts. Thinned paints and glazes now blend the high keyed colors that recurrently breed wildly dense matrices of flora on canvas and paper. Her previously cloaked but unmistakable references to our species—a lone figure, a building, a boat—have now yielded to brilliant, anthropomorphized plants. Barriers, screens, layers, and throngs of zealous foliage replace distant humanity, or in the artist’s words, “…the edges of human resolve.”

The dichotomy between “human” and “nature” that slips off the vernacular tongue serves no end in these paintings. Abrams’ plants are us. She reconstructs our “nature” through the lives of flora. Indeed, what we call “nature” is a characteristically human fabrication. It is a word, a thoughtful and often useful tool that effectively separates our species from other living things. We thrive on such self-reflexive references, on defining our species in contrast to an “other.” (On the contrary, plants do not paint pictures of human beings.) Categories help us to organize the world into discernible and readily understood components. Our thirst for organization, in the face of unquenchable entropy, provides for us some measure of definition, perhaps control, over other living systems.

Abrams’ flora is a visual poetry of that language. She orchestrates pigments on canvas and paper, gives them shape and color and texture and light and density so that they begin to look like what we think or want plants to look like. She travels to find them, to mine their exotic characters, to explore their secret places, to discover their beyul, their Shangri-La, and to ultimately fix them on the canvas. It is no accident that many of her paintings are from distant climes. Such journeys and searches, real and poetic, have long occupied human attention and bestowed uncommon insight and knowledge on the traveler. We seek out the arcane and secreted to clarify our identity and then recreate it for others not able to make the trip.

Abrams’ roaming gaze covets density. Heaving concentrations of flora in her paintings echo the urban intensity of Shanghai, Jakarta, and São Paulo. But, more importantly, Abrams’ exotic flora flaunts human emotion, sexuality, and passion. Prodigal teenagers posturing to impress with their exquisite readiness and fecund promise saturate her canvases. There is no portent of aging in her ripe flora. Even without us in the picture, she summons an elemental human fantasy: to achieve a fixed state of percolating youthfulness.

Tangles of flora shield the path into Abrams’ pubescent universe. At times the panoply is impenetrable. Open space is obstructed. Even in her paintings of ponds, the water, an element of sustenance for her lilies, forms an oxygen-depleted barrier. As we move up Abrams’ canvases from bottom to top, cracks widen, spaces open a bit, touches of blue suggest gasps of air, and less-crowded avenues penetrate her abundant foliage. But flora stands guard. In several paradigmatic works, Beyul and Lata for example, two of her most recent paintings, access beyond the immediate space seems increasingly improbable.

Abrams’ labyrinths of plants deflect attention from any one thing. There is no center, no focal point. The pulsating density of the flora is like a subway station at rush hour or a doggedly overstuffed room: inertia, simplicity, and calm are not well rewarded. Energy, ambiguity, and pandemonium are. This vital environment owes its being to Abrams’ hand extended toward and touching a canvas or sheet of paper with pigment. And it owes its meaningfulness, its poetry, to our animal ability to combine images and words in order to explain the world. Sap does not course through the veins of Abrams’ plants. It is human blood.

Peter S. Briggs
Helen DeVitt Jones, Curator of Art
Museum of Texas Tech University

© Peter S. Briggs. All rights reserved.