10 Contemporary Artists Taking Fresh Approaches to Flowers
Flowers have long held a place in culture, influencing fashion, design, and literature through their beauty and symbolic weight. And for centuries, artists have turned to flora for inspiration.
Flowers’ visual, olfactory, and tactile qualities, as well as their associations with love, femininity, and the natural world, have inspired the work of innumerable modern and contemporary artists, too. They’ve figured prominently in myriad iconic bodies of work, such as Vincent van Gogh’s expressive sunflowers, Georgia O’Keeffe’s dynamic blooms, and Takashi Murakami’s playful, anthropomorphic blossoms.
Flowers have been photographed, sculpted, drawn, and painted by countless artists. Thus, on occasion, it might seem like there is nothing new to be said or done. Yet the fantastic contemporary artists featured below demonstrate that that couldn’t be further from the truth. Working across a wide array of mediums, each of these artists has managed to harness the visual and conceptual power of flowers in fresh and unexpected ways.
B. 1981, United States. Lives and works in Philadelphia.
Amber Cowan creates her dynamic works through recycling and upcycling 20th-century American pressed glass produced by highly regarded, now-defunct glass factories across the United States. She connects this past with the present in her breathtaking contemporary sculptures, many of which are made from colored glass in historical hues that are now impossible to find. Through flameworking, blowing, and hot-sculpting, Cowan creates highly elaborate pieces, laboriously adorned with intricate florals.
In many of her works, Cowan focuses on collected glass objects like small dolls, snails, or swans to create scenes that explore themes such as love and loneliness. Hundreds of flowers usually surround the main characters, giving her narratives a romantic and feminine allure. Speaking of her use of these natural forms, Cowan has said, “I like the work to look organic, natural and flowing, like it will just keep growing.”
B. 1989, Rennes, France. Lives and works in Brittany, France.
Emerging French artist Florent Stosskopf is not afraid of bright colors. His flat albeit energetic motifs allude to his training as a graphic designer. Within his paintings of hectic domestic spaces, strewn with art books, famous artworks, and painting materials, flowers in myriad forms and surreal hues oftentimes serve as protagonists.
In The flower Shelf (2) (2021), vibrant blooms in playful vases and planters sit atop a wooden picnic table, accompanied by a trellis against a bubblegum pink backdrop. Meanwhile, in Still Life With Bird And Shell (2020), eccentric flowers in multicolored pots and peculiar elements including a seashell, a skull, and a mint-green canary surround a large yellow plant. The artist’s unorthodox portrayal of blooms results in dynamic canvases that invigorate the still-life genre.
B. 1985, Shenzhen, China. Lives and works in San Francisco.
Helice Wen’s paintings of striking feminine figures enveloped by exuberant blossoms explore everyday notions of intimacy, vulnerability, and sensibility. The Chinese American artist, whose canvases are typically drenched in color, graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and initially began her career as a children’s book illustrator, though has since shifted her focus to her fine art practice.
In discussing one of her newest series,“Daydream”(2020–21), which explores real-life subjects enveloped by color-soaked blossoms, Wen noted that her use of flowers is related to her explorations into the line between fantasy and reality. “I feel that my imagination is more real than real life,” Wen has said. “I try to use different textures, shapes, patterns, and a variety of flowers to represent this feeling.”
B. 1991, Knaresborough, England. Lives and works in Sheffield, England.
Joe Horner, Untitled, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Joe Horner, Untitled, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
In Joe Horner’s ethereal photographs, vibrant floral medleys are pictured against cotton-like clouds, pristine blue skies, and mirrored backgrounds, or immersed in water. His hypnotic compositions burst with color. His series “Flower Blocks” (2020–21) offers a novel way of showcasing rainbow-hued bouquets by immortalizing them in blocks of ice.
The young British photographer, who also captures portraits and commercial photography, says his lifelong passion for the medium was inherited from his family of printers, and particularly from his grandfather, a cameraman himself. Horner’s dazzling images have a heavenly quality to them and instantly remind the viewer, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, that “the Earth laughs in flowers.”
B. 1965, Porto-Novo, Benin. Lives and works in Benin.
Artist Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou follows in the footsteps of his father, the famous Beninese photographer Joseph Moise Agbodjelou. The younger Agbodjelou has dedicated his career to capturing the people of Porto-Novo, Benin, his hometown. He uses flowers as props that help depict the contradictions of a town that wrestles with the tension between traditional and progressive views on society.
For instance, in the series “Musclemen” (2012),shirtless bodybuilders—figures of strength and masculinity—are featured against flowery backdrops while holding bouquets and vases filled with colorful artificial flowers; flowers’ associations with delicacy and femininity add complexity and depth to these portraits. Another contrast appears in his series “Citizens of Porto-Novo”(2018), where women, men, and children appear dressed in military attire in front of camouflaged walls. They hold vases filled with fake blooms that starkly stand out against and challenge the historic symbols of power and war.
B. 1950, Lima, Peru. Lives and works in San Jose, Costa Rica, and Philadelphia.
Peruvian artist Cecilia Paredes creates chameleonic photo performances by disappearing into backdrops often featuring exuberant floral patterns. Using body paint and bespoke costumes, Paredes dresses herself to become one with her surroundings, making it difficult for the viewer to discern where the wall ends and the artist’s silhouette begins.
Her work is meant to be an intimate conversation with nature and an occasion to explore the human body as a manifestation of the natural world. Referring to the continuous appearance of flowers in her oeuvre, Paredes has said that she considers the potential that “flora as we know it is coming to be endangered,” and so through the various notions at play in her works, “aesthetics bind with the anthropologic in order to register fragments of personal and social memory.”
B. 1966, Oshogbo, Nigeria. Lives and works in North Carolina.
Artist Wole Langunju belongs to Nigeria’s Onaism movement, which aims to reimagine Yoruba customs in art and design. He is known for portraying Black figures—oftentimes wearing traditional Gelede masks or Adire fabrics—against vivid backdrops, and florals play an essential part in his work.
In The Figurine (2021), a Black woman wearing a Gelede mask and a stylish floral dress is pictured against a botanical backdrop. And in When the gods came down(2020), another feminine figure dressed in a floral ensemble stands casually against bloom-filled surroundings. Referencing his use of bright colors and flowers, Langunju has said, “My preferred influences are vintage clothing and fabrics from the fifties and the sixties. I am interested in them because they are expressions of the counterculture during an era of decolonization and the independence of several African countries. This era also birthed the flower power movement, feminism and the African American civil rights movement.”
B. 1990, Florida. Lives and works in Queens.
Max Colby’s expansive practice—including sculpture, drawing, installation, collage, embroidery, and painting—seeks to transform and reframe ideas of power, domesticity, and gender from a trans and nonbinary point of view. Inspired by, in their words, the “political tactics of camp,” the Queens-based artist uses sequins, fabric flowers, ribbons, beads, and costume jewelry, among many other materials, to create exquisitely ornate works that subvert and reimagine the aesthetics of patriarchy.
In “They Consume Each Other” (2018–21), a series of sculptures the artist has said resemble “religious relics or ceremonial objects,” assorted flowers—persistent symbols of femininity and non-violence—adorn erect phallic-like figures that sit atop intricately embellished cushions. Colby’s work is currently on view in Shoshana Wayne Gallery’s group show “Above and Below” and will also be featured in the Denny Dimin Gallery group exhibition “Fringe” from July 8th through August 20th.
B. 1983, Israel. Lives and works in Los Angeles.
Thousands of porcelain shards come together in Zemer Peled’s magnificent sculptures and installations. Intrigued by the beauty and brutality of the natural world, as well as themes of identity, place, and memory, the Los Angeles–based artist creates each piece using porcelain that she smashes and then assembles into amorphous figures that resemble corals, blossoming flora, and otherworldly creatures. Some works, such as Shards Flower 23 (2020) and Deadly Flowers 3 (2016), are stunning floral forms.
A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, Peled’s sculptures have an intricate composition of white or colorful shards that create a unique dynamism, and seem to move with the viewer’s gaze. Both fragile and sharp, her pieces explore contradictions within nature and subvert the typical delicacy of flowers.
B. 1978, Seoul. Lives and works in Baltimore.
An environmental engineer with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, Se Jong Cho began painting in 2013 out of frustration with the academic world. The themes and techniques reflected in Cho’s work are greatly informed by her experience studying environmental science; the floral forms she depicts wonderfully evidence the intersection of art and science at the heart of her practice.
Inspired by botanical art and cutting-edge, high-resolution photography, her most recent solo exhibition “Eclipse: Infinite Ending” featured surrealistic paintings of a vibrant sun eclipsing amid celestial clouds and pristine flowers. “I was drawn to scientific and botanical art because they make knowledge and discoveries accessible,” Cho has said. In the series, which seeks to “expose nature’s deceptions resulting from the limits of our perception,” an orchid, a bird of paradise, a blue pincushion, and a black widow, among other florals, are portrayed in precise, seemingly scientific detail, yet resemble something out of a fantasy.