New York

Buffie Johnson

Andre Zarre Gallery

Buffie Johnson’s ten paintings at Andre Zarre are literally so many flowers strewn along the path of her years of research into a prehistoric goddess who has left her mark throughout ancient mythology. Johnson has left similar marks on her paintings of pods and flowers, in the resonance of some of their titles, such as Pasiphae and Circe, and in her positioning of their axes to the picture plane so that Fiddlehead resembles a curled-up embryo and Iris an altar. For many years she worked as an Abstract Expressionist and painter of large murals; her oil on linen plant series, begun in the late ’60s, reintegrated her painting and philology.

Her 1975 Palm Beach Gallery show of over 40 paintings revealed the working method of a muralist conscious of degrees of scale. First she makes a small oil study, later expanded to a medium-sized painting, often painted once more as a large-sized work. This metamorphosis wasn’t traced at the Andre Zarre show. Each painting—from the intimate Pitthea (I’m told its large version was excluded because it couldn’t fit through the door) to the 82 by 71" Ephesus—was presented as an integral work, without alternate sizes.

Unlike O’Keeffe’s The White Trumpet Flower, Johnson’s flowers never leap horizontally into the picture. They maintain the poise of portraits: full-face, three-quarters, profile. Variously solemn, sprightly, or lavishly petalled, their exotic structure and fine detail are, nevertheless, a world apart from most Photo-Realism.

Through her attention to the objects’ detail, she leads us into metaphorical perception in which a substance is the emblem of more subtle realities. Behind the rectitude of plant life are, she seems to be indicating, revelations invisible to history. The muted colors often used are part of this perception, around and inside of which she sometimes presents a flourish of bright color, like the gift of insight and recognition. All the paintings are carefully shaded in background and on the objects’ surfaces, creating a pictorial depth similar to good backlighting in three-dimensional space. Her range of tones is achieved by mixing colors on the palette.

In The White Goddess a warm pink field surrounds the light pink flower painted in delicate strokes; toward the flower’s core a thicket of white stamens is topped by yellow anthers. Opium’s yellow pod capped with a jaunty orange top shaped like a pagota roof is sombered by the brown windowlike holes through which the pod’s spores will be expelled. Iris’s pale brown and beige ruffle of blossoms surrounds a warm gray fanlike structure garlanded with violet color in the shape of a horseshoe. Out of the magenta ring of tiny carpels rises a flamelike pistil of yellow edged in cerulean blue. The flower is virtually a design for an altar, on whose shrine Johnson might place the Great Goddess of Crete, already half-forgotten by 1,500 B.C. at the invasion of the patriarchal Myceneans. One of her titles was Lady of the Plants.

This brushes the borders of political art on the one hand, and hermetic symbolism on the other. But at the heart of the matter, the tissues of implications in the paintings themselves stop short of overwhelming. You can say it better with flowers if an acute technique is there.

Barbara Baracks