As a pictorial subject, the floral still life is unrivaled for triteness, yet impervious and imperishable. The reason for the persistent appeal of floral art is simple. Flowers are a wonderful subject, offering artists a fantastic range of shapes, colors and textures with which to work. Countless artists churn out hackneyed depictions of the overflowing vase or the solitary blossom, but in this ocean of mediocrity, some, such as photographer Amy Lamb, will create fresh, captivating images of petals and perianths, making sense of the mania.
Blame it all on the Dutch or perhaps the Romans. Some art historians hold that the "still life," a term derived from the Dutch stilleven, can be traced back to the fool-the-eye frescoes and mosaics of ancient Rome. Others believe that static groupings of flowers, fruits, vegetables and various household objects evolved primarily from Netherlandish customs and first appeared in 15th-century religious paintings that incorporated flowers as symbols for Christian beliefs. Lilies, for example, represented the Virgin Mary's purity.
Regardless of where it began, the still life is, for better or worse, very much alive. Fortunately, Lamb's exhibition at David Adamson Gallery is in the better category. A scientist turned photographer, she makes large, lush, close-up, full-color Iris prints of absolutely pristine fruits and flowers. The show highlights her contemporary approach to the still-life form, as well as the homage she pays to the great 17th-century Dutch masters of floral painting.
Flemish painter Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, who died in Holland in 1621, was one of the first artists to specialize in flowers, and the color and detail in his paintings are painstakingly true to life and amazingly vibrant.
The same is true of Lamb's photographs, but for different reasons. Whether fruit or flower, her subjects are usually at the peak of perfection. On a symbolic level, they serve, as they have for centuries, as allegories for the transient nature of life and beauty. A perfectly ripe peach will rot or be eaten. A hard rain will strip an impeccable tulip's petals. Our window for appreciating sublime nature and our own existence is small and shouldn't be taken for granted.
But millennial America is a far cry from 17th-century Holland and Lamb is less concerned with loading philosophical freight onto her subjects than with using nature's perfection to explore relationships between forms and colors and making full use of the computer-guided Iris printing process.
Unlike the reflective sheen on the surface of most paintings or photographs, the soft, velvety surface of the archival paper used in Iris printing pulls the eye into fathomless patches of pure color. That visual effect makes each of Lamb's meticulously composed arrangements seem like a completed, hyper-realistic jigsaw puzzle made of dozens of individual and abstract pieces.
The combination of space-age technology and a contemporary take on the traditional still life works best in Lamb's newest photos, such as "Vase of Flowers I," which is her re-creation of a 17th-century Dutch painting. But unlike artists such as Bosschaert, who simply invented floral scenes in his mind and transferred them to the canvas, filling his vases with flowers that bloom months apart from one another, Lamb scoured local florists' shops to create this overstuffed bouquet. She also raised her own butterflies from larvae.
The result is a soft, lovely picture that has the depth, colors and precision of an Old Master painting, captured by a contemporary eye and modern technology. It's the kind of homage that keeps the floral still life perpetually fresh.
Should a serious gallery stage an exhibition of contemporary photography and handcrafted furniture made from fallen branches and twigs? The anwer is no. But Kathleen Ewing has a serious, if quirky, gallery and that's what she's done. Amazingly enough, it works, thanks to the quality of the art and the furniture.
Called "Art for Living," the show combines photographs by Allen Appel, Jeanne Birdsall, Christopher Burkett, Rick Hards and Carl Austin Hyatt with work by Bill Suworoff, a local artist who makes furniture from limbs and branches that have fallen due to natural causes. The chairs and tables he pieces together look quite fragile, but are cleverly engineered to be sturdy. Whether they qualify as art is debatable.
To demonstrate how furniture and fine art can complement each other, Ewing cleared out her gallery's front room and created small, homelike arrangements in which each photographer gets a wall over a couple pieces of furniture. Burkett's gorgeous color photographs of wilderness settings seem to go best with Suworoff's creations, which have a kind of "Sierra Club meets hunting lodge" look.
There are a lot of fine photos in the show, but weirdest and most forceful are Hards's painted tintype portraits. Using brightly colored paint, he places the somber subjects of these small, 19th-century photographs into surreal, occasionally humorous surroundings.
An Ellington Celebration
Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth with a fine exhibition of artwork by teachers from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Titled "The Ellington Mystique," the show features paintings by Kenneth Young and Mel Davis, photographs by Jarvis Grant, Margaret Paris and Llewelyn Berry, prints by Billy Harris and sculpture by Michael Auld.
Auld is probably the best known of the group, having shown and been well received in New York in recent years. But his colleagues are a very talented bunch whose works deserve more recognition than they've received.
Amy Lamb, at David Adamson Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, Tuesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-628-0257, through July 31.
"Art for Living," at Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m., 202-328-0955, through July 24.
"The Ellington Mystique," at Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center, 2112 R St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, 12:30 p.m.-6 p.m., 202-483-2777, through July 8.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) "Pink Calla II" (1967) is a stunning example of Amy Lamb's fascination with the seductive shapes and textures of flowers.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) Rick Hards's 1996 portrait "A New Body" at Kathleen Ewing's show "Art for Living."
CAPTION: Amy Lamb's photos, such as "Vase of Flowers II," put the life in still life.