In Houston last spring I stumbled onto a huge, peculiar show at the Museum of Fine Arts. It had been a magical day, beginning with my finding a rare “Mediterranean” model Optigan (‘70s optical organ) for $20 at Alamo Thrift, followed by a Samuel Beckett–like tour of NASA’s Mission Control and a $50 donation to the Gulf Greyhound Track. The show, called “Florescence: The Arts in Bloom,” lasted for two nights only. I wandered in during the closing party: rich people, fine wines and prosciutto. Spread throughout the two floors of the museum building were over 20 separate competitions of flower arrangements designed to interpret, complement or react to the artworks in the collection. These ranged from bizarre bird-of-paradise translations of a rooster-bewigged self-portrait by Andy Warhol, to the literal (albeit blurrily) floral re-creation of the color scheme and composition of a romantic Bouguereau landscape. Some were right out of left field, e.g., the “Threshold” bouquets designed around a standardized miniature door, or the “Common Touch” arrangements, which had to include a length of dryer exhaust hose, a deck of cards, pipe cleaners and a grab bag of other zany props. These were displayed in front of such “whimsical” art pieces as Alex Katz‘s haunting cutout portrait of Francesco Clemente or one of the blown-up panel paintings of Jim Shaw and Benjamin Weissman’s Horror Vacui serial-killer comic. All the winning entries had little cards with their ranking and helpful comments from the jury: “A spirited composition that is thrown off balance by inappropriate usage of Baby‘s Breath” or “Too emotional. The color should be more understated. Try dwarf Tropaeolum majus.”
It was the weirdest show I’d ever seen, and it revealed to me a previously unsuspected uber-stratum of the art world, a quirky upper-middle-class hybrid of high-toned leisure activities. And to be honest, many of the flower arrangements were more interesting than the “real art” to which they paid tribute. Back in L.A., I asked around. That‘s how I heard about the Germinators.
An outgrowth of L.A. professional art couples moving into houses in Silver Lake, Eagle Rock and Mount Washington, the Germinators were briefly tagged the Eastside Ladies Garden Auxiliary. Starting as an informal weekend get-together to trade propagation tips and compost recipes, the meetings became increasingly creative, with field trips and show-and-tell walk-throughs of members’ gardens. Soon there was a zine, chock-full of field reports from geranium shows; an advice column; a spirited ongoing debate on Bob Irwin‘s Getty gardens; a violently demented comic strip called “Petallica”; and a column of helpful tips called “WHY DON’T YOU???” containing such suggestions as “Build an altar to your Garden Gods and Goddesses” and “Garden Naked!” All good, clean fun, but basically your garden-variety horticultural klatch with a weird streak — until a friend of a friend wrangled the collective an invitation to participate in the prestigious Annual Garden Design show at the Los Angeles County Arboretum (in Arcadia, no less). The theme was “Gardens of the Silver Screen,” and a cadre of hardcore Germinators set to with visions of Buñuel and Cocteau to guide them, and extensive planning and preparations were undertaken. With this remarkable opportunity came an upsurge of team spirit, even among members who had been peripheral up to that point. In spite of territorial disputes and bursts of prima donnaism, “The Dark Side: An Homage to Surrealist Film” was more-or-less ready on time, complete with green-skinned life-size Adam & Eve planters; giant moss ladies; tiny desert landscapes; and even an actual film contributed by core Germinator Zazu Faure, playing constantly on an embedded video screen and piping out a soundtrack of “switched-on” classics. The garden stood out among the staid installations by professional landscape designers. Most of the Germinators were working strictly for the thrill of seeing their vision realized, so it was a great surprise when they won not only the Most Fun to Experience award, but also Overall Excellence.
Henry Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The same goes for the gardening racket. If the Germinator experience was turbulent beforehand, all hell broke loose with their surprise victory. The other landscapers were scandalized — their pernicious fallout is chronicled uproariously in high paranoid style by Ivette Soler in late editions of “The Germinator” newsletter. Envy and suspicion tore at the rank and file even as the Germinators were courted by the media, featured in important gardening glossies and offered lucrative and prestigious commissions. Splinter groups formed. Backs were stabbed, hands were bitten, hearts were broken.
When I met video artist Jessica Bronson, I asked her if she was a Germinator; a flicker of horror passed across her face: “Good God, no. I think we‘re going to have to hire a deprogrammer and do some interventions with the Germinators.”
Everything came to a head when the Germinators were scheduled to bring their floricultural agenda into the white cube of the Patricia Faure gallery space. Originally slotted for early summer, the opening was pushed back as the group was unable to assemble in the same room, let alone reach a consensus on what the show would consist of. “People wouldn’t even come to the meetings,” says Zazu Faure, “and when they did, they couldn‘t agree on anything. It was an amicable split, but it had to stop being a Germinator show if it was going to happen at all.”
Welcome to “The Flower Show: An Invitational,” at Patricia Faure only through September 18, with nary a mention of the beleaguered artists’ garden club. Organized by Zazu Faure, the show includes contributions from art-world luminaries such as Billy Al Bengston, the Reverend Ethan Acres, Lari Pittman, Jacci Den Hartog (the most visible of the Germinators) and Christopher Knight. All arrangements are to include “organic material arranged with artistic flair,” and, in true memento mori tradition, wilting material will not be replenished. As an artistic phenomenon, the exhibition is both firmly rooted in history and a radical confusion of an unfairly disdained aesthetic activity with avant-garde notions of reconfiguring the social contract of artist, gallery and viewer. The Germinators‘ project as a whole speaks of an un-art-world-like level of commitment. Of a willingness to dedicate time better spent schmoozing or brushing up on your Kristeva to what is essentially a solitary, contemplative aesthetic pursuit that demands both constant attention and a resignation to the transitory nature of all good stuff. And of a way to translate that experience into a social context.
Recalling both Voltaire’s injunction to eschew idealistic social engagement to “cultivate our gardens,” as well as recent critical interpretations that identify the trend for art strictly deferring to the sensual desires of its audience as a radical political reorganization, the show delivers the visual-art audiences‘ favorite object (Impressionist flower painting being the last point at which the majority of people feel comfortable with modern art) in a seemingly paradoxical context of critical currency. And while the show promises at least an abundance of traditional visual, olfactory and allegorical fodder, it will undoubtedly be rich in the inventive surprises that drew attention to the Germinators in the first place.
And what of the Germinators? While not officially participating in the Flower Show, most of the members are included. “I just said, ’Any Germinator who wants to participate is welcome,‘ and most of them did,” says Zazu Faure. “I’m not a Germinator anymore. But I see this as a wax-and-wane kind of situation. It‘s at a low point, but come the spring the Germinators will probably be surging with life and energy.”
Given the weird weather that’s been going around, not to mention the amount of fertilizer that‘s been spread, my forecast is simple: Watch out.