BECKY HOWLAND: Weeds of New York
On ViewMoiety Gallery
January 22 – March 13, 2016
I admire weeds for their ingenuity and perseverance. They are exuberant, defiant survivors that grow anywhere, like us artists, even under the most adverse conditions.
MOIETY gallery, an inviting first-floor space in a long-time artist-owned building opposite McCarren Park, dwarfed by the McCarren Hotel—that almighty glass gentrifier—and a neighborhood bar, is seemingly the perfect space to host a meditation on gentrification, weeds, the secret life of parks, defiance, and survival. Howland, a former member and one-time president of Colab (Collaborative Projects, Inc.), has lived in New York for several decades, seemingly spending them defying or thinking around the onslaught of real estate development. Howland was a co-organizer of The Real Estate Show in 1980, which led to the establishment of ABC No Rio, of which she was one of the original organizers. She also helped to develop The Island Show (1981), exploring the common insularity of Manhattan, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico; and The Williamsburg Bridge Show (1983), a large-scale sculpture show installed on the bridge’s promenade.
This collection of Howland’s paintings, all oils on canvas made throughout the ’90s, transforms MOIETY into a jewel box, drawing in passersby, perhaps on their way to the pool or park. The reaction of a walk-in visitor will shift according to how long they view the works. A carefree and careless glance will inspire joy and delight at the exquisite beauty of Howland’s large oils, weeds bursting and floating in all directions, masterfully painted. If they linger, however, their faces will turn to something more like disbelief, disturbance, and then horror. Much like any person who sticks around New York long enough, the viewers notice that the stunning initial beauty of the paintings belies an interior full of violence.
The Bard Rapist (1997), a delicate painting of wild rose and rose hips adorning a pale background, featured a finely painted artist’s rendering of an accused, and hitherto uncaught, serial rapist who terrorized Annandale-on-Hudson from 1994 to 1995, and again in 1997. In a zine made by Howland to accompany the show, folded in with the original news story and a copy of the New York State WANTED sign with the artist’s rendering, she adds a hand-written meditation:
“The Bard Rapist”
It’s real life—not a story—
to misquote Alice Munro
Woman and 7 year old
daughter raped in
woods — 1997
Serial rapist (1994, 1995)
Chances are, he’s progressed
from rape to murder.
to show this painting
Dread of causing
harm or trauma.
That 7 year old girl would now be
What if she lives in Williamsburg?
It seems that Howland never stops thinking of environmental possibilities—the possibility of the victim of a rapist depicted in a show coming face-to-face with his image over two decades later; the possibility of an uncaught rapist now murdering people in the streets. Yet entwined with these violent scenarios are flowers—the most delicate wild roses and rose hips: an antidote, in many ways, to this trauma, much like poison and antidote (poison ivy and jewelweed, Lyme-disease-bearing ticks and kudzu) grow alongside one another in nature. Rosehips can be used to regenerate and repair skin (the victims had suffered cuts and bruises during the attack, according to the new article), and rose oil is a tried and tested antidepressant. Also, according to Ayurveda, rose oil is thought to increase feelings of love, compassion, and devotion, and acts as a tonic for the female reproductive system. Perhaps more sinisterly, however, massage with rose oil is said to stimulate the libido and increase feelings of sexual desire.
On the adjacent wall is the enormous Flower Toss (1996 – 97), a medley of invasive species—painted tansy, purple loosestrife, forget-me-not, and hibiscus syriacus, or rose of Sharon—anchored by a gorgeous feminine face presiding over the painting from her position in the top left-hand corner, carnations and wild rose spilling out of her mouth. Upon closer inspection, this face is the nymph Chloris from Botticelli’s Primavera (c. 1477 – 1482), as she looks over her shoulder in horror as Zephyrus, Greek God of the West Wind, seizes her diaphanous drapery to rape her. At the moment of rape, flowers spill out of Chloris’s mouth—Howland’s title of Flower Toss, then could be a wink at “tossing cookies,” or vomiting. Later, in his remorse, Zephyrus turns Chloris into Flora, goddess of flowers, who stands next to Chloris in Primavera, self-possessed and regally upright, adorned with flowers and spilled them out of her gathered gown and onto the earth.
In the fifth book of Ovid’s Fasti, from which the tale originates, we learn that “till then the earth had been but of one colour,” likely green (khloros is the Greek word for green)—perhaps all flowers, then, are owed to us from an act of violence, long ago. Howland herself had to commit an act of violence to make these paintings—after making her sketches, she uprooted all of the flowers to be featured in the final work, in order to take them back to her studio to paint them. This is what gives these paintings of wild weeds their wild quality—each flower is placed, or tossed, haphazardly near the others, against a disembodied or one-colored background. The roots of a forget-me-not in Flower Toss even make their way into the frame; this is intentional. As a New York City transplant, Howland must be conscious of the fact that we are all uprooted, all poking our leaves and petals between the cracks of overdetermined real estate in a world filled with violence, struggling to survive. We can console ourselves that, like Chloris, and like Howland, the product of our struggle gives the world its colors for generations to come.