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Flower Child

Beauty of exhibit stems from artistic intricacy

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Flowers. Pretty flowers. Could there be anything less consequential?

In the Alexander Gallery, the last gallery on your serpentine walk through the Mint Museum, are late 18th century paintings of botanical specimens by a Frenchman named Pierre-Joseph Redoute (ray-DU-tay).

Flowers, pretty flowers. For the first five minutes, I reflexively looked over my shoulder to see if any of the guys I had howled with during the NCAA final last night were watching me. Jeez, now that would be embarrassing. Why was I here? Oh yeah, the art review.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute -- A Man Passionate About Flowers, curated by the Mint's Martha Mayberry, is showing now through July 14 at the Mint Museum of Art. You've seen Redoute's work before -- on postcards, calendars, book covers, posters. Maybe on wallpaper, for all I know. His illustrations are as stubbornly ubiquitous as those countless Azaleas lining every other street in Charlotte. His work is seen by many and recognized by few.

Pierre-Joseph became entranced with painting flowers early on. He was a third generation painter. His father felt duty bound to warn him that his emerging botanical interests could prove a little, ahem, counterproductive. The money in art was in portraits and portrayals of historical events, saints and heroes, not gardens. Young Pierre-Joseph listened, but failed to take dad's advise to heart. Good boy.

He carried his pencil and pad into local gardens and visited the library at the Benedictine Abbey, where he could peruse drawings in the monastery's botanical journals. Later, between lessons and commissions for portraits, set designs and other money work, the working artist wandered into other gardens to nurse his addiction. Eventually, he found Queen Marie Antoinette's garden where his fortunes turned in his favor just before the queen and her hubby, King Louis XVI, lost their heads.

Les Roses, illustrated by Redoute between 1817-1824, is a three-volume book which cataloged all the important roses known to botany at the time. The series was produced by Redoute with text by Claude-Antoine Thorny.

The book was inspired by the roses in the gardens at Malmais, the estate of Empress Josephine, of Napoleon and Josephine fame. The rose portraits are descriptive of Redoute's method and technical style.

The book was a collaborative effort involving botanist, writer, engraver, publisher and artist. The engraver transferred the artist's drawing (or watercolor on vellum) to copper plates. Inks were applied to the plates, paper applied and run through a press. Redoute added color to the plates by hand.

Each rose specimen is suspended on a white ground. Many do not look like roses to me, but early prototypes, attempts at producing a rose. The detail is as exacting as an engineer's section drawing of an internal combustion engine. Each stem, pedal and thorn is as you remember seeing it, assuming you looked that close. Because these roses are taken out of context, out of the garden, they appear a little otherworldly. They are isolated lush silhouettes on a blank page. After a prolonged inspection, the rose becomes a pattern, a color, a design. It unbecomes a rose; it is a green and red and white organic construction, a fantasy object. No way this thing grew out of the ground.

I've never seen that peculiar transformation in botanical photographs. All of these "flower portraits" manage to transcend their descriptive assignment without appearing impressionist, without the artist intentionally branding the work with Passion. The flowers take on a peculiar luminosity and glow without reliance on an imposed infusion of angst or expressionism. They're not merely exotic. The leaves with rippled edges, the creases in the leaves, the shading on the creases in the leaves combine to gently pulse. These stalks and berries and bulbs are only boxed in by their names, made smaller by verbal description.

Redoute strips away the name and returns the flower. The flower is described in minute detail and becomes, at some point, no longer a discrete thing, but part of the viewer. It gets grafted on you like a new piece of skin. Give that flower a name for cataloguing purposes, but that name never approaches the visceral efficacy of a skin graft. Redoute, with his impossible illustrations, gives the rose back to us, leaves the name as a footnote where it belongs.

"Japanese Lily-of-the-Valley" (from Les Liliacees, Volume II), 1805, is a tangle of monkey grass-like fronds with small blue berries and smaller white pedals surrounding a tiny yellow stamen. The below ground portion of the plant is also illustrated, a bulbous brown root system, stringy, bloated tendrils reaching for the floor. All is suspended on a ground of white paper like a specimen pinned to a wall. The flower is both recognizable and alien. You've seen this type of flower before, but not like this, uprooted and isolated and looking wild and foreign outside the familiar context of the garden. The artist's fevered dedication to detail conveys an implied reverence usually reserved for religious icons or fetish objects.

Go to this show, go to the Mint Museum on Randolph Road, not because you should, but because this show, this place, can change your mind. These flowers, given their due attention, are mind altering because they're so fiercely divorced from our immutable day in, day out. They're not the daily commute, the Mideast conflict or the same faces you greet daily. They're not even the Hornets, Friends or Have a Nice Day Cafe; they're more bizarre than that.

This Frenchman's flowers, behind glass on the still and soundless walls, are a small separate reality we all deserve. You can disappear here and emerge changed, if only for a few hours, if only a little. You may go to this show thinking flowers are inconsequential. But you won't be so sure on the way out.

And it's a cheap thrill -- six bucks at the door, free on Tuesday nights.

Public programs related to this show will be held at the Mint Museum and the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. For more information, call (704) 337-2000 or visit the web site at www.mintmuseum.org. *

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