New York

Laura Stein

Basilico Fine Arts

Comprised of an array of potted plants, large-scale photographs, and colorful botanical drawings, Laura Stein’s first solo exhibition in New York resembled an exotic garden cum experimental laboratory. Close investigation of the plants revealed that they were not examples of discrete species but complex amalgams.

Transforming studio practices into horticultural ones, Stein grafted a branch or bud from one plant species onto the trunk of another species in the same genus to form a rooted bond out of which grew a single living organism. The titles are lexical compounds of the names of the plants that comprise these aggregate forms. In Redrosepinkrose, 1994, the branches of a red and pink rose are grafted onto the stock of a host rose to form a floral mélange. While this work joins what is already closely related, many of the grafted cacti—such as Cactaceathelocactuslophothelenotocactusschumanniauspringeli, 1994—seem completely alien. To create this piece, Stein totemically fused tiny bulbs of various prickly and needled cacti onto the gnarly, twisting trunk of another species of cactus, creating a spectacular mutant hybrid of clashing textures and proportions.

Stein’s hybrids harken hack to a fundamental esthetic of Modernism’s rationalist enterprise: that both art and science have the capacity to improve on nature. While the method of using multiple sources to form a superior, “ideal” whole was prevalent throughout the Renaissance, it was not until the establishment of the European art academies that such ideas became codified as the foundation of our modern esthetic ideal. In a 1764 essay, Winckelmann defines ideal beauty as the “selection of beautiful parts from many individuals, and their union into one.” Describing this synthetic method for achieving esthetic perfection, Winckelmann wrote that the “ancients acted as a skillful gardener does, who in-grafts different shoots of excellent sorts upon the same stock . . . so were their ideas of beauty not limited to the beautiful in a single individual, but they sought to unite beautiful parts of many beautiful bodies.”

The manufacture of beauty is not only the basis of our art-historical heritage, but reflects our attitudes toward nature in general. One of the founding fathers of genetic science, Francis Galton, saw in biology the potential for the “improvement of the human germ plasm through better breeding.” While Galton’s beliefs, along with eugenics, have since been discredited, his objectives are still evident in the contemporary marriage of genetics and biotechnology. Whether it’s cloning, creating mutations in pigs with human cells, or the Human Genome Project, science is in part governed by sociological concerns for improving human biology and the natural environment.

By operating in the field of the natural sciences, and placing these acculturated objects in the gallery context, Stein’s works address our fundamental belief that art and culture can salvage, perfect, and cure the ills of nature, that it can be forced to conform to the moral imperatives of our esthetic ideals. Mapping the territory from neoClassical esthetics to today’s biotechnological revolution, Stein’s works reflect the ideologies of our “enlightened” intellectual and cultural heritage. She shows that rationalism is not only capable of yielding mutant ideologies but mutant hybrids of all nature’s life forms when the natural world is placed at the mercy of our desires. Her montages of diverse flora—transformed rather than improved—are living testimony that the manufacture of beauty is a never-ending, labyrinthine pursuit.

Kirby Gookin