by Max Blue
Photography has long looked to the female form and the natural world for its subjects. The work of Los Angeles-based artist Mona Kuhn is no exception. The nude body and the landscape are Kuhn’s signature themes, and she makes them her own while speaking to a grander tradition. Where previous series featured the full body and expansive landscapes, her latest, Bushes and Succulents, is more restrained: closely cropped shots of female torsos (each of which emphasize luminescent swatches of pubic hair) coupled with macro-lens images of flowering plants that offer interior views denied by the “bushes.”
The prints are displayed in two rooms. The first contains nine bushes and single succulent, Succulents 09, magnificently large at 60 x 45 inches. All are printed on metallic paper, giving each an iridescent sheen. The second chamber offers a site-specific installation of smaller prints on vellum, with musical accompaniment by Boris Salchow.
It is impossible to look at the succulents and not be reminded of the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, whom Kuhn sites as an inspiration. But where O’Keeffe consistently denied correlations between her floral imagery and the vulva, Kuhn draws the parallel in her own work directly. Kuhn has said her artistic explorations are driven by the question “where are we going, where have we been?” Here, she answers the latter half of the question in the style of Corbet’s L'Origine du Monde: the place of birth. The solarization technique she applies to the “bushes,” reminiscent of Man Ray, brings out the blemishes and effects of aging on the flesh — a gentle suggestion of the direction we’re all headed.
The succulents, too, introduce the concept of the life cycle, plants being a strong signifier of natural decay. While in the “bushes” the vulva itself is hidden by pubic hair, the succulents fold in on themselves, and in these Kuhn makes use of soft focus to make portions of the plants disappear into a wash of pastel colors. The abstraction is lovely, and the negative spaces between flower petals or legs (as in Bushes 07), counterbalance the tight framing. The contours of the petals mirrorthe wavering lines of cellulite in the model’s thighs and stomachs, creating a visual parallel. If O’Keeffe denied the connection between petal and labia, Kuhn insists on it; the plants emanate erotic verve: the essence of life.
The installation features 85 photos from the series printed on vellum and arranged in a ziggurat shape on two intersecting walls. It contains the only full-body nudes in the series: two not included in an accompanying book. Both rooms show women striking poses reminiscent of the classical portrayal of the idealized form in Greco-Roman sculpture, like deities of a feminine pantheon. The musical accompaniment is deep and resonant, featuring an audio recording of Gwendolyn Brookes reading her 1959 poem, We Real Cool. The experience is almost gospel in effect; Brookes’ mantra echoes throughout the space, transforming it into a shrine to nature’s course, a garden that invites viewers to stay a while and soak up the sensual tranquility.
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Mona Kuhn: “Bushes and Succulents” @ Euqinom Gallery through April 27, 2019.
About the author:
Northern California native Max Blue is a writer of criticism, fiction and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and creative writing at the University of San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America among other publications.