Peter Paone’s ‘Wild Flowers’ at Woodmere

Last of the Surrealists

'Feathered Flowers': Look very, very closely.

So you think you’ve seen enough banal, pretty paintings of flowers from every culture? Think again.

Peter Paone does not paint pretty pictures. There’s a quirk in every work: His flowers are never what they might seem. Look closely and you’ll find the killer bee, the potential rapist, the drops of red that are not meant for decoration as you might have first thought.

Paone has always been an enigmatic artist, a complex interpreter of our culture. So stay alert while you examine the 87 paintings, drawings and prints, never before exhibited, that are now on view at the Woodmere Art Museum.

Master of medium

Peter Paone was born in Philadelphia in 1936 and his genius was discovered early, thanks to the unique sort of educational opportunities found only in large cities. This exhibition includes works from 1963 to the present, each one rife with meaning and intensity but rarely representing real-life flowers. They might not even be flowers at all. Look again.

Paone is a master of medium and technique; he prefers using acrylic paint on panel instead of canvas because the wood doesn’t absorb the paint, keeping it on the surface and so it doesn’t convey a dull impression. And with that explanation, I suddenly realized why I’m always disappointed with acrylic-on-canvas paintings: They look dead.

Rescued from the attic

Beginning in 1997, Paone made a series of figurative paintings based on Mother Goose themes, termed them failures and relegated them to his “Discard” pile. But nearly ten years later, inspired by a painting he had seen at the Met, he went back to them and re-worked each one with a floral foreground— still not benign, but you have to look and think: rape, castration, lesbian coupling and overt sexuality, as in Paone’s “Vampire” series.

Peacock is the exhibition’s masterpiece. It’s an emblematic self-portrait, stemming from Paone’s surname in Italian (a shortened version of pavone, "peacock"). It combines Paone’s typical figurative images embedded in flowers with the crown of thorns (for the suffering that Paone claims all artists endure) on a background of textured layers of color, creating a visual feast.

Paone could be labeled a Surrealist. But that movement died years ago. He’s still at it.

“I wanted to create flowers that we don’t have in nature,” Paone explains, and they are here, for us to experience.♦

To read a response, click here.

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