Better Grammar conjoins photography, painting, sculpture, and architecture, the literal and the abstract, the organic and the geometric, inside and outside, fine art and child’s play. The series draws inspiration from the intense, vivid colors of flowers and other plants, refracted through my deep engagement with color perception and aesthetics.
I began by photographing plants in extreme close-up, isolating areas of pure color—first in my rooftop garden, later in the encyclopedic collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Photographs of flowers carry an inherent temporal tension, capturing instantaneous color we know will change with the flower’s inevitable withering. These monochromatic images are nearly uniform, though close looking often reveals subtle gradients or other variations.
I arrange prints of the images, variously sized, like words on a typeset page. The compositions are at once analytical and emotional, logical and intuitive—poems of a sort. Their vocabulary evokes the traditional language of flowers, their syntax the insights and playfulness of Josef Albers’s experiments with color.
Better Grammar–Garden, my site-specific permanent installation in the atrium of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Regenstein Learning Center, is a suite of eight such pieces, highlighting the cyclical flux that makes CBG a year-round destination. It is a garden in abstract form, or rather, a literal portrait of a garden, which is itself an abstract regrouping of nature. It focuses not on the four seasons as discrete blocks but on the continual state of transition, transformation, overlap, and metamorphosis throughout the annual cycle.
To assemble the palette, fellow artist Joel Score and I photographed over a full year, gathering ten thousand color-calibrated close-ups of bark, leaves, berries, stems, fruit, and especially flowers.
Each of the eight pieces is a mosaic of dozens of photographs. While the area is constant (37.5 square feet), the proportions of the groupings change as one moves into the atrium. The first pair—one panel over the information desk, its twin on the facing wall—are strong horizontals (15 feet long, 2.5 feet high, a ratio of 12:2) dominated by the relatively austere colors of winter. Beyond the side hallways are three more pairs (with ratios of 6:4, 3:8, and 4:6); these more vertical groupings follow shifts in ceiling height but also allude to the longer days of the warmer months. As the architectural space expands, so does the palette of plant colors.
Viewed clockwise from the entrance, the first panels (12:2, 6:4) move from winter into spring, the next (3:8, 4:6) from spring into summer, leading into a long glass wall that draws the outside in, inflecting the complex of colors with shifting light, shadows, and reflections. The cycle completes on the facing wall: the next panels (4:6, 3:8) take us from summer into fall, the final two (6:4, 12:2) from fall back to winter.
Some colors appear only once. Some recur throughout the year but in changing relations; a green that stands as background in the bloom of summer may provide the strongest accent in a muted winter palette. Josef Albers defined factual color as wavelength data, and actual color as our interpretation of color. Each image in Better Grammar may be read as factual color, but how we see that color is in relation to the colors surrounding it.
Change and continuity in color and dimension, working with the dynamic architecture of the space, thus point us to the interplay and overlap of natural processes.
With it’s focus on natural, vivid, and relative color, Better Grammar–Garden offers a unique way to perceive and understand the surrounding gardens. While photographing, we recorded the common and Latin names of each of our subjects, and offer a key that allows viewers to discover, for example, that a vivid red photo from late autumn is actually the leaf of a blueberry. This data also gives the Garden the means to develop further heuristics—interactive maps showing where plants can be found, links to scientific references or other artistic representations, or other sorts of resources.