At Brown University, ‘Fertile Grounds’ exhibition rethinks the art world’s romance with Mother Nature
By Cate McQuaid
PROVIDENCE — “Fertile Ground,” organized by independent curator Heather Darcy Bhandari at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, spotlights three women of color who construct lush works about nature and the feminine.
In the hands of white men through much of art history, this motif was limited to notions of bounty, mystery, and desire. In recent decades, women artists have found elements of oppression, identity, and grief in the picture, as well.
Zoë Charlton’s grandmother, Everlena Bates, was a rare black woman landowner in early 20th-century Florida. Charlton, originally from Tallahassee, honors her in collages made with enlargements of decorative stickers, flowing and glittery, atop watercolor drawings of the lower half of a female nude. In “To them like water (Strand),” Hokusai-like waves rise and foam, twisting around serpentine palm trees. The taproot of the image is a woman’s rear. In Charlton’s work, the female form is at once the fount of extravagant nature and subsumed by it.
Drawing on native folklore, María Berrío, who grew in rural Colombia, builds breathtakingly dense, surrealist collages out of slivers of patterned and watercolor-washed Japanese paper. “In a Time of Drought” depicts two girls, ghostly and paper-white in intricately patterned garb, among goats along a mountain ridge. One lolls on the rocks; the other holds two dead kid goats. Layers of strips of glorious pastel watercolor evoke the clarity of mountain air. The enigmatic narrative suggests ritual and indolence, conflict between two sisters, and a moment of epic choice.