On April 29, Vignettes showed a fresh face on the art scene, photographer Brian O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe, a self-described cocky-teenage-skateboarder-turned-aesthete, has been settling into Seattle after living in Los Angeles for the past decade. He attributes his recent fascination with flowers to his return to the Northwest and subsequent break with car culture; after so many years driving around LA he’s fully committed to the pedestrian life. Of course, walking around Seattle means coming across a lot of flowers and O’Keeffe has begun obsessively photographing blossoms along the way. The one-night show at Vignettes, Moral Floral, showcased some of those images, blown up and pinned to the walls.
There’s not much in the world as prosaic as flowers, nor as poetic. The language of flowers is a decadent, tired poetry. Google “floral still life” and you’ll be smacked in the eyes with a nauseating kaleidoscope of romantic cliché.
But O’Keeffe’s photographs are cheerfully bright. Pollen-studded stamen float on velveteen. Blossoms dissolve into color fields. In one picture there’s a tiny pool of moisture collected in the center of a cactus and you can make out the reflection of O’Keeffe’s head and shoulders bent over as he takes the photo. Simple, but pleasing.
Though the morality of flowers is up for grabs, the floriographic language of flowers has been long established: this adorable, archaic practice of communicating coded messages through flowers and floral arrangements has existed since the Victorian era. The red tulips: a declaration of love, yellow tulips: hopeless love, cabbage: profit, cactus: endurance and warmth. Of course there’s also the potentially noxious, ring around the rosie pocket full of posie, side of flowers. The promised fade and decay, the stench of a bouquet starting to go sour in the vase. It’s easy to want to read all these things into O’Keeffe’s work, since, naturally, flowers are aching to be inscribed with sentimentality.
As a cautionary tale, Moral Floral was sufficiently claustrophobic and peppered with enough tongue-in-cheek-iness to keep it from being merely filed away amongst the sentimental excess of civilization’s floral still life imagery. (He promises the O’Keefe/O’Keeffe double entendre is purely incidental; whether or not it is, the visual punning isn’t lost on the viewer.) The insouciance of O’Keeffe’s quick flower sketches taped above the floorboards and the ingenuousness of the snapshots are tender yet ballsy. The perfume of the rhododendrons, tulips, champagne and chocolate cake, and the CD of Romantic piano music in the background are smotheringly over the top. You are momentarily plunged into a Valentine, with all the trimmings.
The floral moral: to simply stop and smell the roses. The show at Vignettes brought the outside world of the flaneur inside for a moment, making it impossible not to stop and smell them.
O’Keeffe posts the rest of his pictures online (liquidcrystaldisplayground.tumblr.com). There are candid snapshots of things captured during walks around town: light fixtures, the shine glinting off the curvature of a car, fluffy cats with mint-green eyes, pistils, garden statuary, graffiti, glass tchotchkes hanging in strangers’ windows, clouds. A pedestrian’s memoirs.