Watercolors in the garden: Forever Spring at Bonfoey Gallery

Gary Bukovnik, “Iris Flight I.” Watercolor.

The exhibition Forever Spring by Gary Bukovnik coincides with the release of a luscious book of the same name. Both the show and book celebrate Bukovnik’s watercolor images of floral arrangements.

Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, Bukovnik is currently based out of San Francisco. For more than three decades, he has painted posters for that city’s symphony. However, he has also maintained a relationship with the Bonfoey Gallery, which is exhibiting “Forever Spring,” and is currently the only seller of Bukovnik’s new book in the English-speaking world.

Forever Spring (the book) was commissioned by collectors of Bukovnik’s in China, where the artist frequently exhibits and sometimes resides. We won’t pretend to know what about Bukovnik’s art appeals specifically to Chinese audiences (there is much that is appealing about it!). However, we can remark on similarities between Bukovnik’s watercolors and traditional East Asian painting. Between the Renaissance and close of the 19th century, Western painters situated foregrounded objects in front of backgrounds of equal detailedness or realism. Many Eastern traditions leave the background blank, as does Bukovnik. His flowers undeniably exist in space; they cast shadows, implying both a light source and something to rest on. But the only visible objects in Bukovnik’s world are bouquets, and the vases that hold them. In Western figurative traditions, painters tend to distinguish objects with color and shading. If they paint over sketches, they work hard to hide pencil marks. Eastern painters are more willing to let drawn lines set the contours of things. Bukovnik will sometimes use lines to define objects; white flowers against his white backgrounds are shaped with thin sepia halos.

Gary Bukovnik, “Paradise Garden II.” 2019, watercolor.

The resemblances between Bukovnik’s work and Eastern painting may be coincidental. In a statement provided to the Bonfoey, all the visual artists Bukovnik cited as influences were Westerners— Matisse, Degas, Alfons Mucha, Charles Demuth, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Paul Wonner, and Mark Adams. Alongside these painters, Bukovnik also mentioned the composers Haydn and Richard Strauss.

As a composition might repeat a leitmotif, Bukovnik’s paintings visualize repeating patterns in plant life. No two flowers in any given urn are identical, but they all share many resemblances. In size, shape, or color, there are no outliers. Particular flowers can be differentiated and identified by their position and by the angle at which they face the viewer, but not by their gross forms. “Paradise Garden” uses visual repetition to great effect, in which rows of white lilies provide dozens of opportunities for slight variations on a theme.

Bukovnik’s flowers certainly are pleasant, but they are not idealized. Though his clear glass vases, we can see yellow-green chlorophyll leaking into water. A few petals curl, or display faint spots of brown. Buds are interspersed with unopened bulbs, spiky and sticky. Unlovely rubber bands hold many arrangements together.

Usually, “floral paintings” are a sub-category of the larger genre “still life.” And most of Bukovnik’s works do belong to both these categories. However, a few of his larger-scale paintings are animated with motion.

In the foreboding “Iris Flight,” Bukovnik shows us a vase of flowers. The vessel seems to have been tossed underhand while it was still in an upright position; it has only tilted forward every-so-slightly. None of the flowers have fallen out yet. However, water is sloshing out; four finger-shaped droplets reach over the vase’s rim. The blue and gold flowers have barely yet swayed from the force of acceleration—but we know, somewhere beyond the picture frame, the ground is waiting for them.

Gary Bukovnik, “Spring Flight.” 2019, watercolor.

In “Spring Flight,” an armful of red, purple, and saffron flowers tumble in white air. Very recently, they were a coherent, carefully crafted bundle. But in this moment, they are falling in an upside-down arc. They have not yet hit the ground, or even been blown apart by the wind. They can’t have been falling for more than a fraction of a second.

In this painting, more so than in any other on display, viewers feel a human presence. In Bukovnik’s still lifes, we are so enthralled by the flowers’ form and color that we forget all the vases that hold them must be manmade. By so directing our attention, Bukovnik effectively removes humans from his works. Not even the absence of humanity is detected, the way a sighted person suddenly struck blind would experience the loss of light and color. Rather, we are in the position of one blind since birth and never acquainted with color—we are not even aware of what is missing. But in “Spring Flight,” we know someone must have thrown the bouquet. The toss might have been made to vent frustration, make a joke, or just to see what it would look like. The last possibility is most likely—this midair snapshot embodies an intriguing contradiction. The flowers are complex, ordered bodies. As plants that have only recently been cut, they are still alive. Therefore, they are fighting against entropy to maintain their structure. But having been tossed, they become part of a chaotic jumble. At the same time, the flowers are orderly and anarchistic. The bouquet, the whole, is less organized than the sum of its parts.

Gary Bukovnik, “Iris Flight I.” Watercolor.

The exhibition Forever Spring tightly focuses on Bukovnik’s output from the last two years or so. The book of the same name catalogues a wider, deeper sampling of the artist’s work. Though all the showcased images center on flowers, Bukovnik labors to keep his subject fresh. All this effort results in some pleasant surprises. Paging through Forever Spring, we see flowers not only in vases or garden beds, but blooming on lily pads and cherry trees. Vases not only fall, but hover free of gravity. The glass vases are joined by blue and white porcelain. Magically, a dragon painted on one of these urns peels itself off the ceramic, and intertwines itself in irises. In photographs of a site-specific installation, butterfly mobiles hang between walls bursting with larger-than-life petals.

The exhibition Forever Spring runs through July 6 at the Bonfoey Gallery, located at 1710 Euclid Ave. Currently, there is construction on the corner of Euclid and East 17th St. Please plan your trip and parking accordingly. The book Forever Spring can be purchased for $65 at the Bonfoey. For more information, call 216-621-0178, email gallery@bonfoey.com, or go to bonfoey.com.

Special thanks to Olga Merela, Marcia Hall, and Pam Stropko.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.