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Paula Hayes

Supervert's review of an exhibit the botany-inspired works of contemporary artist Paula Hayes. Originally published in Artforum Magazine (October 1994).

Exhibit at the Fawbush Gallery, New York

Artists tend to create a world of their own: a beau monde (Manet), a province (Van Gogh), a factory (Warhol), a bathroom (Bonnard), a hell (Bosch). In the case of Paula Hayes, it appears that the artist is creating a garden. In Wish Energy (all works 1994), a sinewy house is labeled both "nice" and "haha," an arrow pointing downward at some sort of root system says "hard frost," and seemingly random phrases line the individual roots: "Fucking everyone is fucking no one, take the queen jelly, oh it's necrophilia is it?, you know the ego is in the blood." Taken singly, a drawing such as this is obscure, like an illustration to a long lost Brothers Grimm fairy tale full of sublimated violence and sexuality; taken in conjunction with Hayes' other works, however, it begins to elaborate a system as highly idiosyncratic as that of a medieval alchemist, one that appears to draw on both natural science and personal experience for its iconography. The works are equal parts botany handbook and Emily Dickinson in inspiration, and even when they don't consciously incorporate horticultural imagery, compositionally they remain true to the structural principle of the garden: it's something like collage, and whether it's climate, compatibility, or sheer aesthetics that causes one plant to be placed alongside another, only the gardener knows.

If there's any skeleton key to this world, it may lie in the works' subtle sexuality, which is sometimes verbally explicit, though never visually so, as in a wall drawing titled There Is Frost I Guess (And Sun Too). The work looks like an enlargement of a diagram of roots, many of which are lined with repetitive phrases: "What does it mean when one is afraid?, darling purple teeth marks on soft pallor, these are well branched, and rebranched, very dense, when one is afraid, one grows pale, darling purple teeth marks on soft pallor, fear makes people pale, one grows pale, and runs off at oblique angles." You begin to wonder if the rhizomorphous imagery is somehow appropriate to the suggestive phrasing Hayes often uses — as if the artist, unlike "natural scientists" who describe the reproductive habits of plants with proper scientific detachment (which really ought to be called genital detachment, since it's a matter of observing things as though you were a eunuch), has discovered the interpenetrability of plants and romance. On one hand, there's a sexual aspect to botany itself: if you think about it, the way plants reproduce is vaguely perverted somehow. Having a bee carry pollen from one flower to another would be like a husband having his semen transported to his wife by the intermediary of, well, another species. On the other hand, there's also a botanical aspect to sexuality, as in the drawing, I, Bee Mistress: is Hayes a mistress of the bees (hence perhaps a flower)? Is she a bee who's a mistress (hence the suggestiveness of Wish Energy's "take the queen jelly")? Either way, it begins to sound like dirty talk in the language of flowers.