Now the Painting Blooms to Life

“STUNK” as photographed at the Huntington on August 22nd, 2018. Having originally been surrounded by other photographing fans, I blacked out the background in Photoshop. This deletion of background interference isolates and emphasizes the subject, and also visually aligns it closer to the corpse flower in a painting I did in 2009

ON THE NIGHT OF AUGUST 21st, 2018, TWO AMORPHOPHALLUS TITANUM plants bloomed at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, California. Though their impressive botanical collection boasts some 43 specimens, the last time one bloomed at the Huntington was in 2014. Catching wind that there would be corpse flowers aflowering, and knowing that the blooms only last a day or two, I made a beeline (or rather, beetle-line, since the florescence is pollinated by beetles, flies, and other carrion-attracted insects) to the Huntington that next morning. I was glad I did, since one named “STINK” had already finished itself off a few days prior, and another named “STANK” was already partially deflated. “STUNK” was fully open and erect when I arrived conservatively in the greenhouse Conservatory on August 22nd.

Though I had been in the know for years about these botanical masterpieces, and had included them in two paintings in 2009, this was the first time I had seen even just one in the flesh. Hence it was also the first time I smelled one–and, true to mythology, it did indeed waft of fresh rotting flesh. By the morning however the reek was somewhat deodorized in the ever-warm and humid greenhouse, reeking more of a potpourri perfume themed tropical fruity death. While there was a decent crowd of voyeurs taking snaps of the naked botanical celebrities, I saw only one fly sticking around. In lieu of lack of beetles, it just so happened that at 1:15 PM on August 22nd–as can be seen on this Tweet from @TheHuntington–a resident botanist hand pollinated “STANK”–with a paintbrush! This excellent article chronicles the lives of the stinkers as well as the miraculous conception of the process of hand-pollination.

You can easily deduce the size of that thing! by the ordinary housefly poised on the tip

Amorphophallus titanum (whose scientific naming is self-evident upon seeing it) boasts the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence. Growing out of the limestone soil of the rainforests of Sumatra and Java (which are unceremoniously being destroyed via deforestation), it is a member of a type of bloomers called “carrion flowers” or “corpse flowers”. It’s uniquely spotted palm-like herbaceous tree form dies back in preparation for the monumental blooming, which takes place usually only once a decade. Its smell and visual appearance attracts pollinating carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies (Sarcophagidae–named after the sarcophagus, a term which actually means flesh-eating stone). Far from having anything in reality to do with death and decay, the corpse flower is in fact very vibrant and lively. I must admit that in addition to the list stating that “analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the stench includes dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like feces)”,  I personally appreciate Wikipedia’s description of the spadix (flower spike) resembling “a large loaf of French bread”. Yum!

Way back in 2009 I did two paintings featuring Amorphophallus titanum. Since I had never seen a corpse flower in the flesh (being restricted to painting from internet-supplied images), seeing and smelling these specimens in person was the literal experience of a part of my paintings from the past come to life in real living flesh and blood. What a trick of magic that is! Sun Ra demonstrated this same type of magic in Space is the Place and elsewhere, stating “I am the living myth”.

Androgyny / 2009 / oil on canvas / 16″x24″ / Celeste Evans. This painting features A. titanum and the Dutchman’s pipe as botanical representations of anatomy related to the theme of androgyny
Like the Corpse flower, the Artistolochia flower aka Dutchman’s pipe vine mimics not only the smell of rotting flesh but the way it looks, too. These visceral qualities attract flies which enter into the yellow tube (pipe), where they are trapped temporarily by hairs to ensure pollination. How it evolved and/or was intelligently designed to be this way is a mystery
I’ve been growing this South American “Double White Angel’s Trumpet” (Brugmansia x candida) since around 2009. I propagated it from a cutting I snagged from a tree growing outside of ACME gallery in Los Angeles when I visited there for a CalArts field trip sometime around 2009. Years later when I went to that gallery again the tree was gone. The gallery itself is now gone, having closed in 2017. According to the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, Brugmansia was classified extinct in the wild in 2014. Luckily these angel’s trumpets are readily and easily grown at home. Still, all of the changes mentioned give my angel’s trumpets photographed above in June 2018 emphasized and melancholic significance. For those not listening, the trumpets of Revelation have been blowing for some time now
Serpent Queen / 2009 / oil on canvas / 40″x30″ / Celeste Evans
The Passion flower was named so by Spanish Christian missionaries who saw the flower’s anatomy as being reflective of the anatomy of the Passion of Jesus

Upon revisiting the painting Serpent Queen, I recalled the premise of its inception originating from a dream or vision. I remembered having written down in some notebook about the dream or vision, though I hadn’t revisited that text since I had started the painting in 2008. Nearly 10 years later, I now was able to locate the notebook containing the text which describes the dream. I had written this at 1:00 PM on October 2nd, 2008:

Part flesh and part statue, her not-entirely-realistic features denote the sculpted and frozen-in-history nature of her image and myth

It is clear from the final resulting painting that I had no intention to stick to the literal image presented to me on the page in the dream. At the time of painting I was drawn instead to depict a heavy, dark and damp–womb-like–rainforest environment, which grew from a separate spontaneous vision I had involving a woman wrapped in a snake in the jungle. Plus: I was more interested in painting plants and rabbits at the time than explicit Egyptian or Christian iconography-although such references are indeed there to be found. Indeed, there was just too much to include in one single painting–and still the painting is heavily overgrown! In a different notebook, written while I was working on the painting, I wrote on January 14th, 2009:

Unlike A. titanum and Aristolochia, Venus fly traps are real flesh eaters!

(Side note: Having crossed only two weeks into the new year, I hadn’t transitioned to writing the date as 2009, as the above text is dated 1-14-08. Strangely enough the incorrect dating of 2008 continues until 3-4-09, meaning that for two months in that notebook I forgot to note/notice it was no longer 2008. Accidental blips in chronological documentation must prove to be a bitch for archaeologists, I am sure).

Solandra Maxima aka Golden Chalice vine is another tropical plant which blooms symbolic and also psychoactive effect
Photo of Serpent Queen at conception on October 31st, 2008

According to the info on the digital file, the photograph shown left was taken on October 31st, 2008, at 1:33 AM. Assuming that is correct, I can be fairly certain that instead of going to the CalArts Halloween party like all my other peers at school, I was starting that painting. The veil is just so–very thin–at that time of year that putting on a veil to party hard is usually the last thing I want to do. But even year-round, I had a hard if not impossible time justifying or veiling exactly what I was doing making such paintings within the walls of an educational institution (con)founded upon the hypocritical Postmodern narrative of non-narrativism which was grounded down into the superficial superstitions and high art dogma of the “conceptual”. (And yet ironically in this institutionalized context, no one would have understood any immaculate conceptual jokes). In December of 2009 I exhibited Serpent Queen along with some other paintings, poetry, objects and plants in a corner gallery so prominently located that everyone walking through the institution would pass by the exhibition. Perhaps this conscious corner exhibitionism unconsciously made up for my semi-deliberate avoidance of being cornered academically and publicly, as I really didn’t like to profess the things I am professing now to my professors of the institution at the time. (Why bother talking to the walls of white cube sanitary confinement?). I recall having a successful “review” of the show, but I’ve carelessly forgotten about it. I did however write this poem as as sort of textual addendum to the painting:

Unaccountably at the time of creating Serpent Queen I had also consciously forgotten (or was not thinking about, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to “grow up” or something) the one-off painting titled Apep’s Eclipse I did all the way back in 2002. Rather than stemming spontaneously from a dream, this acrylic painting on wood was simply informed by my spontaneous interest in Egyptian mythology at the time:

Apep’s Eclipse / 2002 / acrylic on wood / ~15″x11″ / Celeste Evans. The often hawk-headed sun god Ra battled the serpent Apep–lord of chaos, eclipses and darkness–in various light-vs-dark conflict scenarios
This is a corpse flower corm: an often man-sized underground tuber from which the plant and flower, like a being returning from the underworld, reemerges from over various cycles

The corpse flower is a rare living paradox: through imitation and emulation of death it furthers its botanical life. Its existence embodies a living, botanical mythology worthy of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the Ancient Egyptians, whose secrets, yet to be practically divulged, orbit around the links betwixt life and death. What true mythologies might have been growing in the cultural soil of peoples inhabiting ancient Sumatra and Java? After all, there were pyramid builders in ancient Indonesia.

Stele of Lady Taperet / c. 850-690 BC / paint on wood / Louvre. An indigo-skinned hawk-headed god-figure wearing a snake-skinned top seems to be sending rays of psychic flowers to a woman with a nest and egg on her head. Its easy to see there’s a lot more going on than just that, but for now the painting remains up for interpretation…

I just wonder what is going to happen when the Ancients depicted in 2-D form come back to life in 3-D: when the gods of old return like the blooming corpse flower as the living myth