Weeds can be architecturally stunning… radial, spiraling, delicate and stout, possessing hidden powers for healing and sustenance for larger, more mobile, legged species (us). Our family has been nourished by nettle pesto for the last two years– a surprisingly nutritious and earthily delicious staple. Once the nettles are blanched, they lose all stinging capacity, and become deep green and aromatic, with more protein than almost any other plant source. The ubiquitous plantain weed has immediate application. Any sting or bite is eased by chewing a leaf and applying a poultice. I’ve watched this happen with my three sons! I also love to see the boys nibble dandelions and clover, and walk through our yard chewing the mint and rosemary and fennel that grow so easily (like weeds!) in our rental yard.
The paintings posted here are by Ryan Pierce, a Portland artist and organizer, co-founder of the fascinating Signal Fire residency. He recently completed a series of paintings, many of which are based on weeds whose names contain a reference to the devil, uncovering some of the predisposed disdain we tend to hold for organisms that seem to fall outside of our careful control. From Elizabeth Leach Gallery:
New World Atlas of Weeds and Rags, Ryan Pierce’s second solo exhibition with Elizabeth Leach Gallery, features paintings depicting the resilience of the natural world. The works are inspired by the role of weeds and the impact of humans on an Earth reeling from climate change, mass extinction, and environmental collapse. The images are a meditation on our perception of weeds as unwanted, harmful invaders that bring imbalance to an ecosystem, rather than a symptom of existing trauma. Pierce’s celebration of weeds questions conventional nativist conceptions of landscape, wondering instead at the possible role of weeds as a restorative function of a wounded planet.
For this series, the artist has borrowed the visual tropes of botanical illustration, recalling a time when painting and drawing were trusted modes of seeking, recording, and conveying new knowledge. The works are populated with moths, snakes, and locusts — symbols of the deplored but ecologically crucial components of nature. Alongside the paintings are slender pedestals holding bowls of “Roundup Ready” weed seed. Viewers are invited to take the seeds, which are from common and robust Pacific Northwest native plants that have been genetically selected to resist chemical pesticides: a provocation to destabilize and hasten the demise of industrial agriculture.
Another painter uncovering some of these hidden powerhouses is Leslie Bostrom, in Providence RI, whose latest series “Monster Flowers” makes roadside sprigs monumental.
A year ago or so, celebrated nature writer Richard Mabey gave a written tour of some of the weeds pictured inside the collection of the Tate in London. After giving a historical description of painted weeds as ” small, creeping, insignificant, wild nature as cosmetic afterthought,” he has this to say:
When we break through into the twentieth century, the era of ecocide as well as genocide, weeds move centre stage as emblems of wild, regenerative energy, healers of vandalised earth. […]
Now east London contemporary artists are putting up blue plaques by particularly resplendent patches of street weeds (Tagworts), and Michael Landy, best known for making an artwork out of the destruction of all his material possessions, none the less sees the “marvellous optimism” of urban weeds worthy of a series of meticulous and durable etchings.
Ralph Waldo Emerson generously suggested that a weed is not so much a plant in the wrong place as “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”. Perhaps, in the desolation we are making of the planet, the weed’s moment has arrived.