The name is the show: eight big, glossy potted houseplants, photographed against blank white backgrounds. Ostentatiously unremarkable, Michael Mazurek‘s smart plant portraits at Conduit Gallery in Dallas are like houseplants themselves: designed to disappear.
Authorship, in photographs, isn’t self-evident; the brain behind the camera can be hidden from the viewer behind layers of technology, and Mazurek is in full stealth mode. Each choice, whether of subject, lighting, background, or framing, is as near the default as possible. Eliot Porter, he’s not: Mazurek’s photos eschew dramatic techniques that could make his plants more vivid than real life. As-is, they’re healthy, but not perfect. Big, but not too big. Pleasant, but not ravishing.
Mazurek effaces himself from his images, leaving them so purposefully generic they simulate the effect of houseplants better than actual plants would: a show of real plants, as art, would have been too exciting: more sensually pleasing and more confrontational, and Mazurek wants neither.
Why? Many artists, externalizing their discomfort with the reality of art’s end-use as decor, have produced intentionally bland, pleasant objects with greater or lesser admixtures of irony; Mazurek’s plant pictures are mid-range: the plants are presented without bitter sarcasm, but their clinical objectivity prevents them from being entirely cozy. The plants are shown in a variety of plain plastic sales pots- corrugated black, terra cotta, green and white, as if Mazurek went to a garden center and chose a cartload of models for his project. They’re emphatically not beloved family members, and their isolation echoes the familiar blend of cheeriness and alienation we experience in schools and businesses every day. The plants look a little lonely in all that whiteness.
As companions, houseplants rank just below goldfish in terms of their demands for care and their return of love. Mazurek’s photographs are one rung lower. Fusspots with a strong emotional conviction that art must be expressive, or personal, or tell a good story might find Mazurek’s House Plants upsetting, but the same can be said of Mondrian. Plants are nice. Squares are nice. Mazurek’s plants reiterate the oft-heard critique of abstract art: it is complicit, by aloofness, in whatever cultural skullduggery is afoot. These vegetables protest their innocence too strongly: obviously, they’re hiding something.
Superficially, Mazurek’s plants recall the work of San Antonio artist Chuck Ramirez, who also used digital imaging skills drawn from commercial photography to present commonplace objects. Ramirez’s series on discarded hospital flowers, opened suitcases and bags of trash all used deadpan documentary to present ordinary things emphatically, so that their implications were forced into the viewer’s consciousness. Ramirez’s studies showed that, despite their interesting particulars, in experiences like discarding trash, packing a suitcase, and even dying, we are more alike than different. Mazurek, a social critic, is less interested in people than in issues.
Six of the photos are of unique plants, each a different species, but in House Plants 5 and 3 the same plant is photographed from different angles, in different pots, and printed in two different sizes, but isn’t fooling anyone. It’s the same plant. Anyone who looks can see it.
But who’s going to look? Everybody, because there’s nothing else to look at. The duplicate plant turns the exhibition into a bizarre exercise in forensic plant identification. Comparing telltale nicks on leaves, I looked at Mazurek’s photographs much more carefully than I would have looked at real plants. The photographs are larger, they’re well lit and mounted at eye level and, in a gallery, you’re supposed to look at the art. Only as I turned away to type this article did I notice the real-life orchid on the reception desk, next to my computer.
Michael Mazurek: House Plants will be on view at Conduit Gallery in Dallas through February 15, 2014.