Flowers have seduced artists since art was a thing. Botanical illustrations date back to first-century BC, lilies and carnations played key roles in 16th century Christian art, and trailblazers from Monet to Van Gogh to O’Keeffe devoted much of their corpuses to blooming flora. With 400,000 species of flowering plants from which to choose, options are as limitless as the artist’s imagination.
Hence the challenge posed to Melanie Johanson, curator of the Cornell Art Museum: How to whittle down the infinite sprawl of floral art into a thematically cohesive exhibition? For her spring exhibition “Flora,” she settled on nearly 30 artists from Delray Beach to South Korea, with a preference for those who thought outside the vase: The activists, the spiritualists, the deconstructionists.
Yes, there are a few of the expected lovely still-lifes hanging on the Cornell’s walls, but it’s their unexpected, site-specific counterparts that most tickle the mind and warm the heart. As soon as you enter the museum, regardless of the door you choose, you’ll be drawn like a magnet to Hayley Sheldon’s towering paper dandelion hanging upside down in the central atrium, its “windblown” buds settling on a nearby wall like static fireworks. Look down on it from the second floor or up into it from the first; either way, you feel like a Lilliputian, or like Matt Damon’s shrunken protagonist from “Downsizing”—a surreal and thrilling sensation.