New York

Herman de Vries

Art is a form of social therapy for herman de vries, who believes that organic materials contain redemptive potency, à la Joseph Beuys. For de vries, who was trained as a botanist before turning to art in the ’50s, plants are the locus of meaning, offering healing through contemplation of their pattern, texture, aroma, and shape. His visual style is elegant and pared down, and his assembled flora are certainly beautiful. The question is, Can an inheritor of Beuysian shamanism using formal strategies of such simplicity hope to compete against stunning advances in both technology and apathy, at a time when “green” has become a marketing tool?

This exhibition contained about thirty small wall works, dating from 1978 through 1997, that followed two basic formats. In one group, de vries arranged dried leaves and grasses on plain white paper. The leaves, most identified by their Latin names, were laid in neat rows to create delicate patterns of serrations and ellipses; the grasses were either massed in naturalistic tangles or gracefully placed in single stalks. The other group comprised tidy drawings in earth rubbed on paper; these resembled rustic color charts from the brown-sienna-ocher part of the spectrum. Each was identified by the location where its pigment was procured, as in from earth: krim-tatar holy places, 1992, and from earth: death valley, collected by james lee byars, 1991. Among the small works too was a pair of drawings (all and this, both 1997) in colored pencil, each repeating its title word over and over.

The show also presented two sculptural forays. Red-brown and studded with formidable thorns, the fifteen sturdy rosebush sticks that make up rosa canina, 1995, are fixed in a uniform row along the wall like the palings of a fairy-tale fence. Like the leaf pieces, it centers on the play of positive and negative, object and support, the regularity of de vries’ imposed order versus the inherent variability of his material. The show’s most compelling entry, la fleur de lavande, 1998, is a five-by-twelve-foot bed of lavender placed on the floor. The dried blooms are loose in their rectangle, without barriers to protect or contain them. This borderlessness, reiterated by the ambient fragrance, seems to invite interaction. Pressed with a foot or hand the carpet feels springy and prickly; when stirred even slightly the lavender gives off a stronger scent. But its receptivity to the imprints of fingers and shoe-treads seems almost distressing, as though the herb were defenseless, and having satisfied the desire to touch, one quickly refrains from disturbing the flowers. Perhaps this duality of invitation and invasion is de vries’ point. In herbal medicine, lavender is regarded as a relaxant, a balm for anxiety, and as its pleasing scent and soft color radiates peacefulness, the fragility of la fleur de lavande becomes an appeal to the viewer to be calm in its presence.

de vries seeks to energize the viewer’s spiritual attunement to nature, and in this his project is similar to those of Wolfgang Laib (also of Beuysian stock) and Andy Goldsworthy (who descends from the English tradition of romantic landscape). More than either of these, however, de vries relies on uncomplicated presentations of the natural world. Botanical specimens are offered as pure objects, sheltered by the artist’s attention from the ravages of commodification. But the idea of natural beauty is a container for a whole panoply of cultural meanings, and de vries’ framed pieces, in particular, bear an inadvertent likeness to ads for “natural” cosmetics—picturesque piles of herbs, swatches of earth-toned pigment—one might see in the pages of Vogue or the windows of a Body Shop. For this kind of physic to work, it must challenge as well as soothe the viewer. The sensual delights of de vries’ secret garden left too little room for such confrontations.

Frances Richard