New York

Carol Bove and Janine Lariviere

The Horticultural Society of New York

Beauty, reflection, mimesis, vanity, knowledge: Comprehending all of these concepts, it’s no wonder the Narcissus legend has proved a hardy subject and allegorical theme for artists for centuries—to say nothing of its metaphoric utility for philosophers and critics. But the myth’s material denouement, those namesake flowers that sprout from the site where the prepossessing young hunter perished, has had less of an afterlife.

Carol Bove made narcissus blooms a focus of her exhibition at the Horticultural Society of New York this past summer, in the form of an accordion-style picture book by artist Janine Lariviere, which was displayed unfolded not far from a cluster of four of Bove’s new sculptures and one collage (there were actual flowers from both artists’ gardens, too, early in the show’s run). This volume, titled Twentieth Century Narcissus (all works 2009), documents the introduction of narcissus cultivars, or daffodils, throughout the last century; each year is given a page and contains small color photographs, clipped from gardening catalogues, of the available varieties registered that year. The appeal of this project for Bove had nothing to do with the usual associative tropes of Narcissus and everything to do with the periodicity of the cultivation and dissemination process: Can flowers, she asks, function as anthropological relics in the manner of the cast-off books and vintage furnishings of her earlier installations? Might the white-petaled Narcissus Trepolo, introduced in 1968, evoke that year in the way that, to pick one of many possible examples, issues 5 and 6 of Aspen magazine, designed by Brian O’Doherty and included in Bove’s shelf sculpture What the Trees Said, 2003–2004 (not in this exhibition), conjure the year before?

Well, not really—but it doesn’t necessarily matter. Lariviere’s explanation, given in the press release, that “the process of creating a new flower is a long one” (taking more than ten years), means that daffodils cannot be, in Bove’s words, “indexical [of] a culture in a given moment.” Even if flowers are time-stamped artifacts—and Bove is unconvincing on this point)—the “commerce, taste, intellectual labor, fashion, customs, human emotional life” that she claims they reflect are always at least a decade out of date. Yet the idea of temporal lag has always been central to Bove’s practice; her concern is more with what we think the 1960s and ’70s looked like than with what they actually did look like, and with the aesthetic terms through which historical moments register in contemporary consciousness. And her inquiry into the temporality of cultural elements not often considered time-specific will likely reveal some fertile new territory. Language is another such element: The collage in the show, Marilyn Monroe, features a 1964 Michael McClure poem whose phonetic spellings and guttural exclamations attest to the persistence of Surrealist vocalization in Beat verse.

But the fact that the relationship of Lariviere’s book, and even of the collage, to the sculptures felt tenuous is worth paying attention to. This is less of a criticism than it sounds. Bove’s three-dimensional objects seem, in recent years, to be outgrowing the period matrices to which she likes to tether them (whether hippie-dippie, Minimalist, or, in this case, horticultural). What was most compelling about the four sculptures on view were not those aspects—the washed-up plank in Driftwood, the two peacock feathers of Figure—that summon days past. Their force resides instead in the dialogue between transience and monumentality that animates the husk of rusted metal in Escape from Freedom, and in the quietly insistent elegance of Netting’s mesh of silver chain; above all perhaps it lies in the sympathies that such a disparate grouping somehow manifests. Bove’s sculptures, in other words, can stand on their own, and she might consider letting them.

Lisa Turvey