LUCIAN FREUD: PLANT PORTRAITS
The Garden Museum, London. October 13t - March 5, 2023
Curated by art historian and author of Freud’s Herbarium, Giovanni Aloi, the show will emphasise Freud’s ability to capture the elusive essence of plants in original ways, exploring how he granted plants the same gravitas and carnality of his human subjects.
Lucian Freud, the undisputed master of the modern nude, was also a prolific painter of plants. Bringing together a selection of rarely or never-before-seen paintings and etchings of potted plants and gardens, as well as drawings from his childhood, Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth (8 December 1922).
Freud was neither a plant lover nor did he have a “green thumb”. His gaze was rarely attracted to flowers—it was weeds and the straggly potted plants that followed him from home to home throughout his life that captured his imagination. This propensity to find beauty and truth in the seemingly unremarkable, the overlooked, and the imperfect led him, under the guidance of his mentor Cedric Morris, to develop a remarkably honest approach to the painting of plants—the foundation of what would become his distinctively raw take on the naked body.
Many of the potted and garden plants Freud painted are akin to wise old friends who have seen it all but know better than to speak. Zimmerlinde, one of the plants he painted many times throughout his career, was an unofficial Freud family emblem. Originally grown in Vienna by the artist’s famous grandfather, Sigmund, cuttings of the plant were passed on to family members as a living keepsake.
Freud also relished the unwieldy buddleia that smothered his Notting Hill garden, as seen in Wasteground with Houses, Paddington (1970-72)—a rebuke to the strict rules and restrictions of both the geometric rigour of Italian Renaissance gardening and the decorum of classical art. In the artist’s work, yellowed leaves, blemishes, and tears are celebrated, distinctive traits demarcating the true identity of individual plants: unique portraits capturing a history of shared growth entwining artist and plant in ways that words can never quite adequately describe. Freud’s plants often connected his life history to the people he loved, embodied personal childhood memories, and helped him negotiate his identity and familial heritage.
Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits emphasises the importance of the domestic space as an opportunity to rethink our relationships with plants and the roles they play in our everyday lives. Never reduced to passive aesthetic objects, in Freud's work, plants can teach us to fine-tune our attention, observation, and connection to the world around us. Throughout the history of Western art, plants were relegated to the background—lush fillers or theatrical sceneries – and they very rarely, if ever, took centre stage. Today it appears clear that this visual marginalisation of the natural world was the symptom of a broader cultural malaise —a growing alienation from the natural world that is in part responsible for today’s environmental degradation. It is in this context that reconsidering man’s relationship with the vegetal world is more important than ever.
This exhibition is therefore a timely invitation to re-learn how to look at plants beyond the traditional lenses of the symbolic reductionism of religious painting and the objectifying gaze of science. Between these opposing approaches there lies a valuable opportunity to explore a more personal and intimate relationship that can only unfold in enclosed places like gardens or in the privacy of our homes: a closeness that defines one’s lives, memories, and the passing of time.
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Fountain House Gallery, New York. September 15 – October 26, 2022
Co-curated with Maria Bronkema
Animal Crossing aims to educate the public and encourage society to celebrate our planet’s diverse wildlife. From wild animals to domestic companions, relating to animals can be a humbling experience that helps generate empathy for oneself and for others. As we learn more about each animal, we get an intimate glimpse of why we experience transference with them. An elephant might represent our aunt, a nurturer. The weasel is an amazing trickster – a hunter all year round. At home, we transfer feelings to our pets as they become our child, friend, and companion. All our intimate experiences are evident in our art of animals in the wild and from home that we choose to create and share. Animals intersect with us in multiple ways: culturally (symbolically through mascots, national flags, folklore), spiritually, and physically (animals in an urban environment, wildlife preserves, etc.) How would you feel if this animal disappeared? Finding ways to preserve the ecological balance is an urgent call to action, and highlighting our special connection with animals will aid us in preserving them and the environment.
LEFTOVER AND OVER
Spring Break Art Show, New York. September 7 – September 12, 2022
Co-curated with Erica Criss
What does the historical aftermath of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1863) look like? Leftover and Over, an installation of works by contemporary artists Lesley Bodzy and Andrew Orloski, offers a contemporary glimpse into the same woods in l’île Saint-Ouen, on the River Seine, painted by the enfant terrible of early modern art. In essence, Luncheon on the Grass is a painting about patriarchal voracity—the insatiable consumption of the gaze, the relentless extractionism of toxic masculinity, and the unquenchable desire that only sex and food can instill in us. This is what makes Manet’s painting so powerful and meaningful still today as we come to terms with the idea that atmospheric pollution is not just the result of reckless fuel carbon burning but also of patriarchy and its related logic of conquest and subjugation.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, over and over, we have devoured, depleted, and discarded natural resources as if they were endless and as if nature were nothing more than an idyllic backdrop against which to frivolously frolic. Leftover and Over is a quasi-humorous and surrealist-inspired riff on Luncheon on the Grass that calls out of this asymmetrical relationship. Cast against a blown up and deconstructed reproduction of Manet’s famous painting, Bodzy’s and Orloski’s work foreground the intricate web of patriarchal and objectifying forces that define our lives today and with that the health of the ecosystems we inhabit.
Manet’s painting stirred up a storm of colossal proportions at the 1863 Salon de Refuses. The brazen nakedness of the female model Victorine-Louise Meurent, and her unapologetic return of the gaze, scandalized Parisian audiences. But was this painting about contemporary decadence—an irreverent depiction of the growing debauchery pervading Parisian youth—or was it more about the freedom of progress and the abandoning of old mores? This tension is central to the painting’s nineteenth century interpretation as a tableau of contemporary vice, an undesirable manifestation of a certain kind of modern carelessness and youthful frivolity. The perspective of Manet’s painting casts the viewer as a casual voyeur who has arrived late to the picnic—the sex has already happened and not much food is left either. Everything, it seems, was consumed in haste.
The crumpled blanket, and tipped-over basket, in the left-hand corner, suggest a frenzied state of desire. Food leftovers are scattered around. But most importantly, this enigmatic composition reveals the naked truth beneath the hypocrisy of Parisian audiences that would find no problem gazing at the nude body of a Venus but that squirmed in disgust at the sight of the everyday French life they led. Leftover and Over metonymically mirrors Luncheon on the Grass while critically addressing the nature, purpose, and outcomes of the voracity that makes it so haunting and revealing.
The work of both Bodzy and Orloski approaches materiality as a means through which to negotiate our relationship with reality. They manipulate and cast in order to reveal what is often hidden underneath layers of rhetoric and ideology. Together in this installation, their sculptural objects define a transformative tension that at times gestures towards the allegorical and that at others entirely departs from figuration, leaning towards the transcendental.
In Leftover and Over, Bodzy’s golden veils appear as reimaginations of Manet’s picnic blankets—the 19th century take on Venus’ drapes of modesty and decorum—into emotionally charged and vibrant visualizations of vulnerability, the aftermath of everyday traumas that still define women’s lives today. Thin and yet resistant, the veils allude to the vulnerability of women who, oppressed by patriarchal power, must conceal feelings and emotions beneath a veneer of objectified and appealing perfection. Bodzy’s work is biographical in essence but the aesthetic language she deploys allows viewers to find their place among the narrative outlines that hold every piece together. Each work is a meditation on the patriarchal logic of power and a feminist logic of pleasure shaped by resilience, vulnerability, and strength.
Orloski’s sculptures of trash bags and takeaway boxes are a meditation on our consumptive desire and the hollow feeling that follows our inconsiderate moments of gluttony. The monumentalization of these throwaway objects reminds us of their cultural permanence in the face of their disposable and cheap everyday materiality. In them is inscribed the paradox that has defined our ravenous hunger for everything from nature to food and sex, since the beginning of modernity as heralded by Manet’s painting—an arrogant mix of unaccountability and patriarchal hedonism that has led us to a planetary crisis.
Ultimately, the transposition and reinterpretation from painterly to installation form proposed by Leftover and Over transforms the viewer from judging puritan or incidental voyeur to an active and implicated participant in the extractive politics that underpin the meaning of Manet’s revolutionary work of art.
SAIC Galleries, Chicago. August 30 – December 3, 2021
Co-curated with artist Andrew S. Yang
Earthly Observatory explored how we sense, portray, and engage our deep planetary entanglements. Through crafted visions, close listening, and histories of conquest and protest, the exhibition examined the contested relations of ecology to economy, aesthetics to ethics that dominate our experience at one moment, and evades awareness in the next. Drawn from diverse practices across art, design, and the natural sciences, the works invite us to question the ways that we—as one among many earthlings—create our understanding of a manifold world. The exhibition featured the work of, among others, artists Mark Dion, Nandipha Mntambo, Terry Evans, Edgar Heap of Birds, and Terike Haapoja.
Aird Galleries and Contact Galleries, Toronto. October 30 – December 1, 2018
Co-curated with Matthew Brower
Digital Animalities was a two-venue exhibition of artworks exploring human-animal interactions in an age of risk. Digital technologies have been reshaping human understandings of animals and transforming the possibilities for human-animal relations. Artists have been at the forefront of exploring these challenges, using the languages and forms of artistic practice to stage, explore, and intervene in these emerging situations. These works present a range of approaches to the themes. They offer models for understanding new possibilities provided by new technologies, critiques of implicit tendencies in the workings and organizations of these technologies, and classifications and frameworks for orienting ourselves to these new possibilities.
At the John B. Aird Gallery, the theme of “Mapping” brought together works by Julie Andreyev and Simon Lysander Overstall, Jonathon Keats, Gwen McGregor, Neozoon, Ken Rinaldo, Lou Sheppard, and Donna Szoke that suggest how new cartographies organize and orient us.
At the CONTACT Gallery, the theme of “Rendering” brought together works by Sara Angelucci, Ingrid Bachmann, Maria Fernanda Cardosa, Wally Dion, and Aki Inamota that reveal digital technology’s ability to scan and re-assemble aspects of reality.
Curated by Giovanni Aloi and Matthew Brower, Digital Animalities was part of an SSHRC funded research project entitled Digital Animalities: Media Representations of Nonhuman Life in the Age of Risk led by Jody Berland of York University.
PLANTS, ANIMALS, MACHINES, OBJECTS!
'Sector 2337', Chicago. June, 12 2015
Program of short films co-curated with Caroline Picard
Everywhere we turn, we find a territory of nonhuman things. It is impossible to escape the trace of others—from material structures (plants, machines, animals and objects) to those all but invisible bodies outside the bounds of human perception (atoms, molecules, pollution, viruses, satellites, planets, etc.). To further explore a line of research established by its affiliated reading group Following Nonhuman Kinds, The Green Lantern Press presents a juried screening with cinematic examples of the subjective potential of nonhuman kinds.
ANIMALS ON FILM
Program of short films curated for ISAZ2012 conference at Cambridge University, UK. July 11-13, 2012
This program of short films explored human-animal relationships through the work of a diverse number of directors and filmmakers. It included Taus Makhacheva, Milorad Djuknic, Roz Mortimer, Marcus Coates, Jenny Gillam, and Sean Garland.
MORE INFO AND RESOURCES
THE JOURNAL OF NATURE
IN VISUAL CULTURE
Founded in 2006 by Giovanni Aloi, Antennae is the leading journal on nature, the environment, and art. A peer-reviewed, hybrid, journal free to the public. Download all issues free and stay up to date with current news.
Visit Giovanni Aloi's faculty page at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Giovanni Aloi's academia.edu site features downloadable essays, book chapters, and video recordings of talks and other events.