New York Botanical Garden Debut Exhibition ‘…things come to thrive…in the shedding…in the molting,’ Artist Ebony G. Patterson
New York Botanical Garden and visual artist Ebony G. Patterson have been collaborating for a year or more about Patterson’s new site-specific work which is a maverick first for the Garden. Entitled …things come to thrive…in the shedding…in the molting… Patterson focuses her unique vision in an exhibition of tensions, using living and preserved plant collections as its material and inspiration. In her examination of gardens as a metaphoric site of birth and the journey to the molting, shedding and death to be reborn again, her expression has found new meaning and is, as all artists hope, an important trigger to enhance revelation and the appreciation of our place in history on this planet in our expression and love of gardens.
Her approach specifically relates to how the visible/invisible (sub rosa), desirable/undesirable are manifested in how past and present inhabitants attempt to exert control over the natural world via the design and selection of plants for gardens.
Patterson’s site-specific exhibition of sculptural and horticultural installations represents a few firsts. She is the first visual artist to embed with the New York Botanical Garden for an immersive residency. Working directly with the Garden’s grounds and collections she created an original conceptual arrangement that includes sculptures, installations and interventions with living plants to bring a message of impact that is highlighted in the Palms of the World Gallery, the staging rotunda and the walkway gallery between those two showcase galleries in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Her visual artistry is also displayed outside the Conservatory in the lawn landscape as well in the Mertz Library Building on the 6th floor. The exhibition is on view Saturday, May 27 through Sunday, September 17, 2023.
The concept that life is cyclical and mirrors that “eternal” process is present throughout Patterson’s exceptional presentation. Living beauty doesn’t last. However, the regenerative process is what remains. Ultimately, it is that regenerative process that is beautiful and sacred. In order for the beauty of the butterfly to emerge, the ugly caterpillar must first go through its necessary transformative steps, some of them painful, after which it eventually emerges with its wings for its first flight. Likewise, wildlife, living plants and human beings go through processes of “molting,” “shedding” and “decay” in order to revive, regenerate, heal and eventually die, to then transition in another consciousness. Even what appears to be “the end,” is not a full finality, but can be cause for celebration of new life or supplying elements that create and sustain life.
Patterson positions the loveliness of a selection of plants against sculptures which remind us that when they decay, there is the clean up crew that comes along to make way for the regeneration and rebirth. Thus, sculptures of black vultures (400 in all in four different positions) populate the landscape. A usual symbol of death and dying, certainly macabre, Patterson’s use of them, especially in the Palms of the World Gallery, the walkway and the showcase rotunda is a stark metaphor. If they are the ugliness and fearful example of nature and ultimately the planet’s world garden which is not “perfection,” they are a necessary element of purification because decay if left untended creates disease. The clean-up crew of vultures, insects, etc., takes care of the bodies that are decaying, picking their bones clean. Thus, they receive nourishment and the earth’s soil, etc., receives the nourishment from what the vulture’s don’t consume, i.e. bones leach out their phosphorous and other elements after weathering.
In Patterson’s attempt to realize new symbolism of the processes of life, death and regeneration with the backdrop of gardens, she also includes the impact this has had on her Jamaican roots which historically go back to slavery and colonialism with the Triangular Trade-sugar, molasses, rum, slaves. Historically, only the wealthy were able to create gardens. The poor and working class didn’t own swaths of land; rather they were the workers and the slaves on the land and in the gardens, until slavery was abolished and its remnants finally extirpated. Colonialism was white privilege from Europe, brought to the United States. The ending of colonialism and its representation in the ordered gardens of wealth took place during the twentieth century. Remnants of colonialism have been decaying ever since, as individuals acknowledge its horrific and miserable past (the invisible) while having created some of the most lasting and historic structures and dualistic civilization (the visible).
These notions are represented in the showcase rotunda where the white, glass, male feet are protruding upside down in pots of floral plantings. What lies underneath is the entire body that is being consumed by the insects and bacteria in the soil. On the surface are what the body pushes up, the flowering multiple-hued beauty of the plantings in circular pots. Thus, symbolized is the shedding of white colonialism and the power structures that once “lived” and “flourished,” but now are in a state of decay. On another level community gardens are taking over and the wealthy in the UK (which prospered from slavery and ruled in the 1700s) can no longer afford to maintain the gardens without a “free” worker force. Instead, many of the colonizers and wealthy estates have been donated to trusts and museums and paid workers are creating gardens. This is a form of regeneration.
According to Patterson, “The opportunity to work directly within the New York Botanical Garden, using its collections and landscape as inspiration, provided the opportunity to bring many elements of my practice together.” She continued, “I’ve long worked with the idea of gardens, but this direct intervention allowed us to begin to literally peel back the landscape to look, not only at the plans on the surface, but also explore what lies beneath, and the generative life cycles that sustain the entire ecosystem.”
She particularly focused on the “Plants and animals that clean, regenerate, and consume as an act of care. These are necessary for the survival of the entire ecosystem. This reality of the garden is often not highlighted and celebrated, an experience that is paralleled in many areas of society and a tension at the heart of my practice overall.”
Jennifer Bernstein, CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President of The New York Botanical Garden, stated the following about the installations. “Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibition at the Garden marks an exciting moment for us as an institution, as we were able to provide a platform for one of the most compelling artists of our time to explore the complex symbolism of gardens and the fractured human relationship with nature. She added, “Patterson’s work will entice, disarm, and provoke visitors, and we look forward to the dialogue and conversations that will unfold.”
After perusing the hundreds of glittering vultures featured among blood-red, woumd-like ruptures (symbolic of the bloodshed of the enslaved) that interrupt an expanse of light purple foxgloves, lime-green zinnias, coleus and other blooms, you will enter the rotunda showcase gallery. Look up. You will see a cast-glass-and-hydrostone white peacock which focuses the installation from the rotunda to the Palms of the World Gallery. Symbolically, Patterson conceived of the peacock looking backward on its trailing tail, imaginatively unfolding an immersive garden of plants with variegated foliage. These include caladium, hypoestes, red begonias and impatiens.
Everpresent are the vultures cleansing and purifying the decay. In memorium to extinct species, there are ghostly cast-glass plants which Patterson researched in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. These plants are plant placeholders, made one-of-a-kind. The species they symbolize are plants which were once alive, and now are unable to regenerate. All living things are sacred and if codified, will never truly be extinct, but will be photographed or illustrated as a reminder of the impermanence and sanctity of living structures.
Continuing the imaginary unfolding tail of the peacock, we enter the Palms of the World Gallery where there is a foliage wall reflecting in the pool. One sees various plantings including ipomeas, silver-inch plants and love-lies-bleeding. Again there is the symbolism of blood and lives sacrificed for wealth as a subtext and hidden meaning of gardens. Underneath the surface of the loveliness-there is brutality and ugliness. Indeed, nature in its feeding and living can be predatory, as well as gorgeous, a major theme of Patterson’s installation.
The secrets of decay are the subtext, always a contrast to the lush colorful and luxurious face of greenery and rainbow colors. But these plants, too, will wither and their bodies will be used as nutrients for bacteria to enrich the soil which can then burgeon with new growth when there time has arrived. Interestingly, Patterson has included the male glass figure, legs protruding out from the wall into the symbolic “blood pool.” This white glass sculpture halved by the plant wall is perhaps metaphoric of nature’s resilience against human control of gardens. It also may symbolize colonialism’s demise as the regrowth and power of nature always maintains control because of the process of birth, living, dying, decay and regeneration.
In the Mertz Library Building on the 6th floor one may see Patterson’s latest works on paper. Look closely, you will see those helpmates of plants, pollinators, and cleaners of decay, flies and spiders and cockroaches. The patterned entanglements are dense and complex. If you look closely snakes, plants, insects, human figures, butterflies can be teased out of the paper mesh which represents a vast and massive ecosystem curiously interdependent and synergistic. Her works trigger one’s thoughts and suggest subtext and hidden, symbolic meanings and associations. Patterson nudges one to look deeper at organization in nature which is more vastly unknown as discoveries currently happen. With humility researchers have discovered the vast communication system of trees, not only in their root systems, but in the ambient atmosphere. Patterson suggests the inter-connectedness of all things and the circular process which cycles.
The mixed media paper collages from the 2022 series studies for a vocabulary of loss combine highly-textured, torn, and reconstituted botanical illustrations and photographs of lilies, bird-of-paradise, carnivorous pitcher plants, mushrooms, stylized vines, scorpions and highly patterned human arms. These series of works are suggestive of funerary wreaths. There is renewal in loss and beauty in the process which is continuously revolving.
Additionally, there is Patterson’s fascinating installation “Fester.” The rotunda space has wallpaper of repeating patterns to suggest a nighttime garden and a central installation. On one side is a wall, the other side is surprising.Viewed in the round, the reverse side of the wall represents the freshly wounded earth with a cascade of over 1,000 red lace gloves, their root-like fingers revealing cast-glass thistles and cast-metal monstera leaves. Perhaps represented in the mass of blood red hands-a sacrifice of slavery and labor, there are black hands reaching out. And on the other side are the textiles, tapestries of rapturous hues hanging from the wall, partially concealing gold-leafed skeletal forms. The associations are rife. From picking cotton to making textiles, the labor is intensive. When it was free, colonizers and slave-holders made a ton of money, perhaps so much money, their spines turned to gold. Patterson’s work is so rich and imaginative, it stimulates a riot of symbolic concepts.
I also was intrigued to find Patterson’s work loaded with irony. I found myself laughing at the sharp contrasts and striking symbols. Her unique vision is refreshing and macabre and joyful and humorous and reflective of the cycles of living species.
Who is Ebony G. Patterson? The artist received her BFA in painting from Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica (2004), and an MFA in printmaking and drawing from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis (2006). She has taught at the University of Virginia and Edna Manley College School of Visual and Performing Arts and has served as Associate Professor in Painting and Mixed Media at the University of Kentucky. Her work is in the collections of institutions including 21c Museum and Foundation, Louisville, Kentucky; Lost Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California: Nasher Museum, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina to name a few. She is also exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art. Co-Artistic Director, along with curator Miranda Lash, Prospect.6 New Orleans,will open in Fall 2024.
For programming and tickets to this thought provoking exhibition, go to the NYBG website