Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, The Secret Garden, created a secluded, magical landscape that explored the rejuvenating and enlivening powers of living things. With an equally uplifting and engaging collection of organic installations and mixed media sculptures, Sloane Robinson Cheatham, Susan A. Cipcic, and Shana Wood have created their own secret garden in the current exhibition, Hortus Occultus, at Kibbee Gallery. Interweaving plant life with their own sylvan-inspired constructions throughout the gallery space, the artists transform the home-turned-gallery into a dramatic post-human stage, where verdant outgrowths intermingle with the architecture and objects of a group of occupants long gone.
The installation breathes and responds to the home while the low volume of a broadcast emerges from a garden door constructed off the gallery staircase—setting the mood to a time long-since passed. The wood floors of the gallery creak with the movement of the viewer. Plants emerge from the furniture and sprawl across the wooden floors of the gallery. Even the smallest containers hold delicately assembled terrariums. Hints of life exist in every nook and cranny: from the bedroom closet to the shower. The mixed media, however, do not belie the feeling of a temporary collection of artworks soon to be uninstalled, but instead appear settled and organically intertwined with the space at hand—giving the gallery a lively and emergent sense of alternative purpose.
Every surface of the gallery is addressed in a way that feels both personal, but also archetypal of the South. The furniture and wall hangings are of the same vintage as the house that Kibbee occupies. Located in a mid-twentieth century home in Poncey-Highland, the structure of the gallery is still uniquely the layout of a single family home. The architecture is typical of the Atlantan craftsman-style found around the city; and paired with the Southern foliage used around the gallery, the two elements combine to create the impression of a space unique to Atlanta and the South. The installation’s verdant takeover of the house reminds of the feral homes scattered around the city and roadsides of the South, many of which have similarly been overrun with flora.
The three artists merge seamlessly with each other and the space to compliment the feeling of a once-loved home which has now become the site of a new, wildly overgrown life. Cipcic’s armchair which holds a figure constructed of Spanish moss reminds the viewer that the narrative described throughout the space is one of utter fabrication. Every surface is covered in a floral motif: from the towels in the bathroom, to the tablecloth on the breakfast table, to the box on the bedroom dresser. Within these materials, both real and fake plants have been planted, disguising where the plastic flowers end and live greenery begins. This combination of the actual and the forged reinforces the constructedness of the artists’ narrative about the life of the house. The detail that has been taken in each room contributes to the setting of a story written by Cheatham—a story hidden within the walls of the staircase garden. The installation seems to be more about creating the feeling of a Southern setting than fully realizing a Southern story. The familiarity of the details allows the viewer to fill in their own plot and characters, as the artists have provided the means for imagining and actualizing their own Southern histories.
The outrageous quantity of plants and plant images throughout the space continually recall the falsity and facture of the exhibition’s narrative. Wood’s closet installation depicts an unraveling sweater, which deconstructs only to be rewoven into a set of knit, felted pods for holding small plants, all of which are tucked gently into the wall of the closet. Cipcic’s collages of magazine flowers serve as a gaudy reminder of the musty, over-decorated homes of grandparents. There is lightness to the mood of the show due to the abundance of undeniably whimsical and playful flower images. Despite the density of the imagery, however, it doesn’t feel overdone; it feels familiar.
Cipcic has been collecting the items throughout the exhibit for over a decade, and in a way, documents the South through these artifacts. The floral box that sits on a table in the bedroom installation is a piece taken from her bedroom, and the furniture throughout are pieces from family homes. Each piece contains a personal history for each artist, but remains familiar for any Southern audience. Cheatham’s embroidery pieces, which hang above the mantel and throughout the walls of the house, seem to occupy a similarly nostalgic footing as the sweet floral aesthetic of her imagery compliments the traditional technique of her craft. The artists’ individual Southern histories and experiences seem to seep through every element of Hortus Occultus: in both the visual aesthetic and the slow, meticulous process of cultivating the exhibition. They have lovingly created the mood of a sometimes forgotten, but still present, South.
Hortus Occultus by Sloane Robinson Cheatham, Susan A. Cipcic, and Shana Wood will remain up at Kibbee Gallery through Saturday, June 25, 2011.