When Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the founder of Harvard University’s Botanical Museum, decided he needed life-like representations of the plant kingdom for his botany classes—ones more anatomically accurate than the subpar papier-mache and wax models available then—he commissioned a family in Germany to produce them. Known as the Glass Flowers (or Blashka Flowers), the extraordinarily detailed and realistic models created by the glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blashka over five decades beginning in 1886, which numbered over 3,000 and represented 830 plant species, are now one of Boston’s most famous tourist attractions, housed at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Decades on, these iconic glass works continue to resonate with artists such as Rain Harris, whose mixed-media and ceramic sculptures of plants and flowers will be on view in her upcoming solo show at Duane Reed Gallery. Harris’s meticulous, ornamental renderings run the gamut from refined to gaudy, alluding to decorative, often excessive Victorian aesthetics and Cabinets of Curiosity, as well as the Blashka Flowers. And the artist’s patchwork of influences doesn’t end there: while in residence in a pottery workshop in China, she watched ceramists replicate fabric flowers, creating delicate porcelain forms, petal by petal, which left a lasting impression.
Her sculptures may appear to be earnest representations or stylized interpretations of flowers, but the artist approaches her subjects through a satirical lens, borrowing from the decorative arts to produce a sense of opulence or overindulgence. She’s more recently working in black clay and white porcelain, but her earlier work included rhinestone-encrusted forms. “I look to the contradictions that reside between the tasteful and the tawdry and I create arguably elegant objects and installations that oscillate between good and bad taste,” she has said. Employing color, pattern, and decoration to ironic ends, Harris’s sculptures invite thoughtful inspection and suggest there is far more to them than first meets the eye.