FLOWERS CHANGED the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know – even man himself- would never have existed. Francis Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star. Intuitively he had sensed like a naturalist the enormous interlinked complexity of life. Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man. — Loren Eiseley
The word “succession” in its ecological sense refers to the sequence of changes that occur when one set of species supplants another in the same area. In Curtis Bartone’s paintings, prints and drawings, we see birds, animals, insects and flowers in the foreground, large, almost menacing, while any signs of humanity are only in its structures, like the sinister smoking chimneys way off in the background of the etching/aquatint,“Magnolia.”, with its magnificent flower and parrot in the foreground. In the silverpoint, “Drift,” the foreground is dominated by a pelican and thistles and flying geese, while a power station can be seen hovering in the distance. But is it clear which species is “succeeding”? In the drawing, “Invasive Species,” is it the humans of the far off factory that are encroaching – or is it the echinacea, the birds and the butterflies that will soon win out? Does the “New Construction” of the title of one painting refer to the houses we can see in the background or to the spider spinning its web in the foreground? No doubt both. Do they merely co-exist? And only for now?
This ambiguity of reading would seem to come from the reversal of point of view that all these works share. Humans in civilization have successfully separated themselves from Nature which is now viewed at a distance from the safety of home (watching Nature on TV); or as it slides by outside the frame of a travelling vehicle. In Bartone’s works, this is reversed. An often lurid Nature dominates the foreground of our vision while a dark civilization slinks in the distance.
The prints and drawings are realized in the style of the 19th century botanical illustration and beautifully and skillfully rendered. Here, the viewer can feel at home with Nature and can even allow herself a moment of nostalgia, even melancholy, for the withdrawing civilization in the background. It is on the whole a comfortable place, even though a dog called “Candy” is humiliated by its “topiary” cut, and “Vista” gives us another version of man’s redesigning of Nature with the intertwined stems of a hybrid rose/daffodil, and a hybrid iris/rose in a formal garden.
The paintings, however, suggest to me a different and more startling reading. Here, the representations of Nature – the birds, animals, flowers and fruit, etc., in the foreground, impart a keen sense of alienation, due to their looking like cut out illustrations that have been applied to the surface of the painting,. They have left the “real” Nature for the “hyperreal”. What we call the hyperreal is an effect that mimics the surface of the real to such an extent that, incongruously, it makes it seem unreal. Its very perfection marks it out as a fake. The hyperreal wild animal is always harmless. It can only be seen on the screen as a digital image and therefore at a safe distance. We know it is wild, but can never confront its wildness. Everything about it is larger than life, yet it is contained and diminished. In Bartone’s paintings, we may be confronted by an idea so horrific only an artist would dare to suggest it: that it isn’t a species of bird or flower that is succeeding over humanity – or vice versa - but that humanity is being succeeded by simulacra, an imitation, of Nature. And where does that leave us? cs