Clusters of lilies, poppies, lotus blossoms and anemones float like constellations against black backdrops in Cynthia Farnell’s dramatic, graphic photographs of flowers. Farnell’s flower photographs, featured in “Garlands” at Poem 88, clustered into towers and swags of blossoms are often sourced from family plants handed down through the generations, gathered or grown by the artist.
Rather than always resembling conventional flower arrangements — wedding bouquets, corsages, centerpieces — Farnell’s flower clusters are architectural, impossible, Jenga-like, fantasy arrangements. Her strange bouquets seem more like imagined, genetically modified hybrids of various flowers melded into one super-bloom. “Garlands (Lotus),” for instance, features a curling tendril of helpmate flowers on a floral helix capped by a singular, gorgeous, open lotus. Those lesser, bridesmaid flowers work to prop up the star of the show, operating like a skyscraper’s steel armature to help hold its pink-tinged majesty aloft.
In the sumptuous “Garlands (Waterlily),” a vertical arrangement of hot pink, mauve and blush blooms has the appearance of an elaborate, ceremonial headdress. “Garlands (Constellation)” floats across a horizontal plane like a time-lapse image, spider lilies radiating like asteroids from its center, exploding from the clusters of lilies and poppies.
The photographs themselves can conjure up a number of associations. With their frieze-like horizontal or epic, vertical arrangements, these floral garlands can often evoke Japanese scroll paintings of flowers with their emphasis on refined, arranged nature and serene compositions. And in spirit if not in style, the photographs can often evoke European still life paintings of the past, when flowers and lavish banquets of food stood as banners of time’s passage, of rot and wilt and ultimately, death.
“Garlands” features just five of Farnell’s pigment ink jet prints on Belgian linen and one video piece. In that eight-minute video, individual pink, white and blush lilies and poppies drift like snowflakes or fireworks through an inky black space, piling up at the bottom of the frame into a mound of blossoms, like a video game whose goal is to accumulate the most blooms possible.
Farnell’s is a tightly edited show that suits the small Poem 88 gallery space on Zonolite Road. And the work itself has just enough substance and bite to give some grit to the photographs’ surface beauty and a relatively one-note show that most often links flowers and mortality. It’s hard to deny the funereal associations in all those gorgeous, peak-of-beauty flowers set against those enveloping, inky backdrops. It’s a yin and yang of life and death, exquisite, ephemeral beauty and cold, black finality.
The photographs themselves, with their vivacious white and pink flowers and verdant leaves, provide dramatic contrast with those black backdrops, giving these corsages an unmistakably funereal dimension. Farnell’s lush arrangements of lilies recall the pyramids of flowers that decorate funeral homes and the fresh, clean smell of nature that can often accompany such moments. Farnell’s clusters and corsages of flowers are a reminder that these blooms are often the handmaidens to our life’s most significant, fraught passages: weddings, dances, funerals. And there is also a certain melancholy to flowers that echoes our own existence: a fleeting, incredible vibrancy and beauty that fades and mellows.
“Cynthia Farnell: Garlands”
Through Jan. 28. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Poem 88, 1123 Zonolite Road N.E., Suite 20A, Atlanta. 404-735-1000, www.poem88.net.
Bottom line: Surface beauty with a backbeat of mortality in an Atlanta artist’s photographs of flowers.