“Grasping Fully the Magnificence of Plants”
A review of
By Henry Evans.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
Paperback: Counterpoint, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
In the last few weeks, I’ve been poring over seed catalogs, not so much to order anything (I have most of my seeds saved from past years), but, through the glossy pictures, to visualize this summer’s gardens. In my mind, I have already planted and grown all the Acorn Squash and Brandywine Tomatoes; the Asters gathered from my neighbor’s yard have grown in with my Calendulas and Sunflowers; and recently E. E. Cummings encourages me: “…it’s / spring / when the world is puddle-wonderful”. The images in these catalogs are so enticing because they are of these plants at their best, such that the photograph itself is a beautiful representation, but also inviting a closer look, especially rewarding if familiar with a living example of a given plant.
A new collection of prints by Henry Evans, Botanical Prints, can be enjoyed in much the same way: through an economy of color, delicate line, and solid definite shapes, Evans’ linotypes get at the essential nature of a floral array of pines, persimmons, chrysanthemums, chicory, and more, mostly reflecting the abundance and diversity of California plant life. The clarity of these prints, all isolated on a clean white background, calls to mind most clearly the specimens that I know from real live plants; these images distill each leaf bud or petal down to their basic structures, clarifying be means of representation, even as they point back to and recall the plant from which they were drawn.
And so the cactus on page 7 reminds me the most of the cacti that have been in my window all winter, just as the crocus on page 75 and the daffodils on page 67 are as familiar and particular as those I saw poking from the ground just this afternoon. But by far my favorite prints in this collection are of two varieties: those that remind me of the beauty of plants I’ve grown and observed directly and carefully myself, and also those prints which cause me to look more closely at a plant that I recognize, but not in its entirety. Of this latter type, there are Columbine whose flowers I identify immediately, but the leaves and form I’ve ignored, until the grace of this print.
The persimmons, reduced to red-orange, black, and a golden yellow suggest just what I recall of this sweet fruit in the autumn – a dark bare branch (one of only a few prints printed with black), next year’s buds evident, with full, firm persimmons hanging on as their leaves turn brown, ready to fall. Chicory plants weave between Chrysanthemums, a few blue petals opened and a dozed more formed; a plant which is treated as a roadside weed, but whose bright burst of morning flowers, whose color leaves by noon or as soon as they’re picked, I’ve always appreciated, as Evans clearly does as well.
And finally, the Eggplant, a handsome plant, rendered here mostly in solid green, with fine white lines tracing the ripple of the leaves, one huge light blue blossom, and one deep violet fruit, weighting the entire plant and image towards the ground. This delicate print impresses itself in my mind in much the same way as a past harvest of eggplants, and enters into the continuous change of seasons and rhythms of planting, care, harvesting, and eating that play out daily.
In the books preface, Peter Raven makes the connection between these prints and the larger ecological context:
“so many people wanting to consume so much have profoundly altered [California’s] landscape… Climate is changing throughout the world: many of the habitats where Henry produced some of his finest studies are likely to disappear within the next several decades unless we take drastic action.
Such action can ultimately be driven only by moral principles, by love for one another, and by love for the world that supports us. Statistics are excellent for understanding trends, but to grasp fully the magnificence of plants, or of life on earth, examine carefully the prints collected in this volume, or consider nature itself, with the kind of tranquility that Henry commended to us all.”
It should be mentioned that Botanical Prints also contains “excerpts from the artist’s notebooks” which comment on process, material, and content; I must say – at least to this reader – Evans’ writing falls rather short of the exquisite prints, as it seems rather steeped in the pedantic formalism of Modernism. That said, I was more pleased (and I think Evans’ prints more suited) with keeping that E. E. Cummings quote in mind while going through these prints, which is more in keeping with the poetry and beauty of the everyday life captured in Evans’ images.