In the center panel of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” paradise is found and splurged upon in a darkly chaotic landscape of interactions between humans, nature and the otherworldly. Removing the sin and stigma from the pleasures of our physical world, Becky Flanders's solo show Motley Precious Planets portrays sensual, fantastical worlds that reflect on how the multiplicities of our lives intermesh. Using handmade kaleidoscopes, the artist transforms bodies — of flesh, land, and water — into foreign, mystical landscapes to be explored with fresh eyes.
Removing the sin and stigma from the pleasures of our physical world, Becky Flanders's solo show Motley Precious Planets portrays sensual, fantastical worlds that reflect on how the multiplicities of our lives intermesh.
There’s a lot to take in between the photographs and the wall text. Some pieces speak more toward breaking the stigmas of owning up to our skin and sexuality, with others lean toward environmental issues, but the artist’s interest in sovereignty, spirituality, sacred geometry and fragmentation intertwine in a way that reflects our mind-body-spirit existence.
Opposing mass media’s exploitation or manipulation of the body, “Alien Star” effectually twists our view of female genitalia by turning it into a tessellating sphere of skin that becomes a world unto its own desire. Reducing reproductive bits into fleshy nodules of pinks, purples, and browns, they evoke the natural landscape — hinting to something you might find in desert rock formations or along the seashore.
Some of the cropped views of body parts. as in "K Lips," are so ambiguous, you have to do a double take to differentiate whether they are facial lips, or a pair of southernmost lips. Yet identification doesn’t matter; this sense of body fluidity (and even gender fluidity when sex becomes unidentifiable) allows for the power of anonymity to flourish, where the beauty of the body can blind us as it transforms into radiating temples of tangible flesh.
The future of these worlds is indeterminate: It’s hard to tell if they are consuming themselves or proliferating like a cancer. While their plentiful flora and fauna seem to elicit a utopian landscape, there’s a lingering sense of dread behind their fragile, pieced-together existence. Facing the unknown, the artist’s empathy for these varied bodies comes out in her work, in part because she is often the model in her own pieces, but also because these precious worlds are worth protecting.
In pieces where she isn’t the model, like “Untitled (Penis Ball),” the penis is not mocked (even though there is slight humor with the inclusion of a snail and some mushrooms growing along the groin). Flanders symbolically alters the penis as a site of regeneration, since fungi and snails are an essential part of rejuvenating decomposing matter into reusable energy.
Reclaiming sovereignty of the body, Flanders's view of the vagina as a sacred place nods to Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” while giving consciousness and agency to female sexuality. Mandalas peek out from a pair of pink labia in “Green Things” like a pair of wild, captivated eyes. The mandalas, seen in previous series like Gorgons and Ana Suromai, symbolize the universe and spiritual awakening; and here, the vagina here seems to be fully aware of itself in the world.
The sense of wildness and unpredictability is further garnished with the still life arrangement of flowers, plants, and poisonous berries that are found on-site. Combining organic forms with man-made architectural constructions, Flanders acknowledges the distance we create when we distinguish ourselves as humans as separate from the natural environment. Alluding to the artist’s anxiety surrounding stewardship of the land, the play of the poisonous berries poised next to the vagina seems to beg the question: Who is more dangerous, man or nature?
“Cypress Knees” is one of the few pieces that focuses solely on nature, yet in the broader context of the show, it’s hard to eliminate body references. The fragmentation of the landscape, with pieces of cypress tree protruding in all directions, turns a vast swamp into a self-sustaining biosphere. Other photos from her Florida Detritus series are more direct in showing our consumption of the natural environment with her use of garbage, colorful plastics, and other found objects. But here, the kaleidoscope holds a mirror up to our society: We see an abstraction of a fractured environment that indirectly hints towards our environmental impact.
One of her large kaleidoscopes hangs at the back of the gallery, with the opening dangling strategically and comically at crotch level. While I love the emphasis on the hands-on production of creating these photographs (because let’s be honest, everyone is wondering how they are made), part of me wishes that my curiosity was denied and the spell of these dreamlike worlds wasn’t broken by the physicality of process.
But dreams, like mirrors, are subject to being broken. In a contemporary moment where the world seems to be smaller and time seems to go by exponentially faster, where we reside in multiple mediated channels, Flanders concretizes her hopes, fears, and desires as we face uncertain futures for our motley precious planets.
Motley Precious Planets
Through Nov. 4
Tempus Projects, 4636 N Florida Ave., Tampa