Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien
At the Wildling Art Museum. Shows through June 11.
Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott
You hardly need an excuse to visit Los Olivos this time of year. The hills are green, Lake Cachuma is full, and the poppy, lupin, and ceanothus are all out. In case you need extra temptation, though, the Wildling Art Museum is providing it: through June 11 its exhibition, Plant Portraits: The California Legacy of A.R. Valentien, beckons. If you are anything like me, as you step into the exhibit, a small, crass part of your brain will say something like “boy, these would make great note cards” or “wouldn’t these look nice hanging in my house?” (The gift shop does carry both note cards and reproduction prints, each of which are suitable for framing.) Not to worry. As you make your way among the works, the freshness of the compositions, the delicate application of the paint, and the sure handling of the subject matter will engage that other, bigger part of your brain. You won’t have any doubt that you are looking at art.
There is something here for everyone: gardeners; naturalists; environmentalists; historians; locals; students; those who are impressed by fantastic watercolor, or by a knock-out sense of design; and those who just like really, really realistic art. The selection of plants is right on. Many are familiar favorites for those living in this area, appearing like old friends in their Sunday best. The rest are outstanding for their visual impact, or for the virtuosity of their rendition.
The works will rotate during the exhibition, so you have reason to visit more than once. From May 3 to 21, cacti and shrubs common to desert regions will grace the walls. Given the artist’s meticulous rendering of each spine and surface, these are sure to delight. From May 24 to June 11, trees, ferns, plants, and shrubs common to mountain and forest regions will appear. This section of the show will feature some of the showier flowers; the California Pitcher Plant alone will no doubt merit the trip. If you would like a preview of some of the works, you can visit http://www.sdnhm.org/valentien/plantportraits/features.html, but keep in mind that the small, online images don’t even begin to do the paintings justice.
The Wildling has done a wonderful job creating a context for the works. A brochure offered as you go in gives background of the artist and the paintings, while each work has its own wall label that emphasizes the botanic interest of the subject. A handout for children offers activities to engage the younger set (three of whom were enthusiastically involved in the show while I was there). A side room offers related books to peruse, and when you get tired of being indoors, a nearby field, seeded thoroughly with wildflowers, is appropriately coming into bloom.