January 8 – February 26, 2022
Beverly Penn’s complex botanical sculptures in luminous patinated bronze are reminders that human life is axiomatically intertwined with plant life: our own existence is possible only because of the breath, sustenance, and structure that plants provide. Penn’s work–exquisite botanical flourishes cast from the diversity of species that inhabit the chaparral and hill country ecologies of the sculptor’s home in Texas–remind us of the deep biological intimacy between humans and plants, a relationship that ranges from ornamental habit to evolutionary survival. Radical Adaptation, a collection of Penn’s recent works, will be exhibited at Lisa Sette Gallery from January 8 to February 26, 2022 in an examination of the aesthetic relationship between botanical forms and human experience in a time of climate change and species decline. Penn’s works present both a memorial to the lost primacy of the botanical world, and an allegory for survival, imagination, and radical adaptation.
A collector of specimens, Penn’s botanical knowledge is extensive; her studio doubles as an archive of plant forms that are robust enough to withstand the casting process: Agave, Antelope Horn Milkweed, Bulbine, Coyote Brush, Canada Thistles. Penn duplicates these structures in bronze using centrifugal casting, a jewelry-making method that is capable of capturing the minute details of vining stems, thistles and seed pods.
Collections of cast botanicals are the raw materials that begin Penn’s process, which she likens to drawing or painting:
“I really do not know what the outcome is going to be when I start. It can become an exercise in variety, contrasting large and small botanicals, or a snapshot of a time and place. For example, a collection of thistles from where I live now in Central Texas, combined with thistle I brought from my childhood home in Maryland. Or plants picked from the four corners of my garden in each season. These are all connected for me, but each narrative is different.”
Centrifugal casting must be executed in small scale, so each of Penn’s initial components is no more than five or six inches; the sculptor uses nails and templates to composite these parts into large-scale wall pieces in forms that swirl and twist several feet in each dimension. She then solders the pieces together, polishing each solder-mark so that it is nearly invisible, then immerses the whole into patina chemicals such as copper nitrate, ferric chloride, or ammonia chloride.
In each part of this complex process, Penn relies on the organic forms themselves to enact a transformation; the shape of the smallest component contributes to the overall composition, while the chemical patinas interact with the crooks and crevices of the original stems and blossoms:
“I’m trying to think about these plants as individuals, that the individual species are reacting to a global situation, and I’m trying to use patinas as a parallel natural process. The color and shape is not only about a physical or visual description, but a stand-in for a process that affects ecosystems as a whole.”
Increasingly, remarks Penn, her subject matter is the dwindling ecologies of flora, both in memoriam for the the living things that are leaving the earth, and as a means of moving forward from these losses:
“I am idealizing native plant compositions as a way to bring attention to the devastation of climate change, but in recent work I am also paying attention to the weeds, the invasives, because right now there’s simply a need to have green stuff in the earth that attracts pollinators and adds nutrients to the soil. Saying a plant is “good” or “bad” doesn’t address the incredible nuances in the ecology of plants.”
Recently, Penn remarks, she has been paying attention to the jungles of diverse and surprising specimens that spring up in neglected freeway median strips, shapes structured by one of the most mundane and destructive of human activities–vehicular travel–that nevertheless provide an untouched place for hardy and uncultivated plants to thrive.
Penn’s keen botanical knowledge, her library of flora and her metalworking skills combine in an enchanted process that results in conflagrations of bronze vines, buds and thistles in arrangements resembling vessels, vortici, or tumbling spirals. Each sculpture is illuminated in such a way that casts fugitive ecologies in shadow form, drawing our attention to the patterns of absence and structure that make up biological life. Penn’s sculptures are not exact recreations of plants, nor are they pure botanical ornamentation; each work is a formal composition, conjured from secret narratives and gathered in wild places, that speaks to the exquisite intimacy between humans and plants, and the unknown transformations wrought by our changing planet. Penn has remarked that through her casting process–in which the original organic material is burnt from the wax mold–these works may be thought of as memorials to plants that once were, yet
“a memorial also links us to desire, so it is equally hopeful, because it is in idealized nature that we cultivate in our imagination.”