Nicole Duennebier collects marvels and intriguing facts, “curiosity cabinet things.” Did you know, the Malden-based artist asks, that in captivity a katydid will grow hot pink if there are no predators around? “They go through a rainbow of colors before reaching hot pink and then they stay hot pink.”
This is the idea that spawned the pink insect perched on a wilting bouquet of roses and tulips in her painting “Hothouse Bouquet with Katydid.” It’s featured in her exhibition, “Floral Hex,” at 13 Forest Gallery in Arlington from Feb. 27 to April 16, 2021.
Duennebier’s style can bring to mind European paintings of a few hundred years ago. Part of what intrigues her about this era is it was a time when art and science, natural history in particular, were closer together. “They were trying to understand these plants.” Her guide star for this exhibition is Abraham Mignon, a 17th century still-life painter in Germany and the Netherlands. Some of the compositions come right from his.
Duennebier was particularly taken with Mignon’s grotto series—still-lives of fruit and flowers, plus bird nests and frogs, stowed away in caves or niches. “Out of place flowers,” she notes. And maybe there was an undercurrent of pandemic isolation. “Being indoors and locking away all these flowery things.”
Last spring as the coronavirus spread, Eben Haines invited Duennebier to make paintings for his Shelter In Place Gallery, which Haines carefully designed and photographed to fool your eyes into thinking it was a regular gallery when in fact it was doll-house-sized—and a kind of dream space for an art world closed down by the pandemic. Mignon was an inspiration for Duennebier’s tiny exhibition there last April.
“He was one of the flower painters,” Duennebier says. “He was tutored probably since he was a child. … I used to wish someone had forced me to paint flowers as a child. I’d be such a good flower painter right now.”
“Floral Hex” offers lush paintings of a big rough stone standing in a moonlit cove, paintings of dark butterflies alighting upon a heap of fish and fading flowers and leaves (“I love how butterflies will feed on dead fish,” Duennebier says), paintings of still-lives of flowers, grapes, fish, moths, pearls and shells. Some she saw as “as a kind of portrait of a woman.”
The most Mignon-y paintings depict wreaths of roses collected in caves and grottos or tossed behind a glowing greenhouse. The blooms slump and fall to pieces. A spider has spun a web spanning one wreath. The mood is mysterious and melancholy. Who collected these wreaths—perhaps left over from funerals or celebrations—and saved them here?
“I found I love painting tulips. I love painting fish,” Duennebier says. “…I like the idea of making it and putting it away in a cave somewhere, which is sort of how I feel about these painting these flowers, that it was sort of embarrassing.”
“The hex,” she says, “was my embarrassment of painting flowers and feeling that there was some curse along with it. Along with funeral and decay I felt like there was some cursed element to the painting.”
In the back of her mind, lingers an awareness that “male painters can paint doilies and flowery things. ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ It will be taken seriously. If a woman paints those, oh, that’s what she likes.”
The art would be dismissed as trifles. “A pretty flower painting by a woman would be too expected. I had to make sure it was gross too. To push away the viewer.”
“It’s been such a weird time,” Duennebier says. Last August, she was laid off from her day job as part of coronavirus pandemic cuts, she says. She took the time to learn new painting skills, new ways of rendering, to use her brushstrokes to hint at more than she actually details, to not need to spell it all out. And she was working a bit smaller too, painting in acrylic on wood panels 2 feet by 3 feet or less. “Previously I felt I needed to make big epic paintings. I felt like I wasn’t making an impression if I wasn’t making a big piece.”
Duennebier says, “I had all this time to work. I felt as though it was the time to work on the things I would want to see. I feel like I always combine delicacy with raw and with decay.”
“I was already spending a lot of time in the cemetery,” she says—Forest Dale Cemetery, a Victorian-era garden cemetery in Malden, an easy walk from her home. Her painting “Memorial at Sea,” of the rock in the cove, was inspired by a rock at the back of the cemetery whose plaque has gone missing.
“I’ve always loved old stone figures and the shape these things make,” she says of the cemetery. “Now it’s also the closest green space. It used to be very quiet. I think everyone’s there now.”
She says, “All the time, there are fake flowers, always blowing around Forest Dale and blowing around in the woods. … I liked the idea of all these discarded flowers floating around.”
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