Through the Garden Darkly

"Florilegium" at Madoo
Robert Dash’s 2000 “Florilegium” series of oil paintings include “Untitled (4),” above in detail, and, below, “Untitled (6).” Gary Mamay Photos

The “Florilegium” exhibition of Robert Dash’s flower paintings at the Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack has only five works in it. That is plenty. These are paintings that are hard to love, but impossible to dismiss. 

First, there is the size. Most sport dimensions in the five-to-six-feet range. Then there are the colors and compositions. Mr. Dash’s indiscriminate use of Fauvist hues and idiosyncratic forms challenges traditional assumptions of the handling of still-life or floral subjects.

This kind of abstraction, rooted in recognizable forms but obviously the pure invention of its maker, feels nostalgic and referential to early-20th-century modernism. Comparisons to Arthur Dove and even Georgia O’Keeffe, whom the artist knew, are not stretches. There is also something in the coloring and somber backgrounds that melds late Willem de Kooning and Fairfield Porter into the mix.

And yet these constructions are so obviously his own. As with the landscapes Mr. Dash saw around him, the Sagaponack street scenes, and vistas from his garden, these images are distillations of shape and broad interpretations of color. He treats them like equestrian portraiture or figure studies, with the flowers’ reproductive organs often on stud-like display.

Although all were painted in the same year, there are different moods and treatments. Some, like “Untitled (4)” and “Untitled (6),” have strong borders and outlines; others, like a coral-colored poppy-like flower in oil on paper that looks like it was conceived in the moonlight, are more loosely defined.

One of his other oil-on-paper paintings is reminiscent of a slice of zucchini resting on a pink aspic. At the base, blue squares give it a gear-like appearance. It is difficult to ascertain what is being presented, but it is fresh in an experimental, devil-may-care way.

The moodiest (and spookiest) of this series is a chocolate brown sunflower-esque form on a gray-brown ground. Highlighted a bit at the petal tips with white, it also seems to have some pollen-like effusion coming from its center. Far from a cheery nosegay, this looks like it came straight from the Evil Queen’s garden, capable of poisoning a maiden, a chevalier, and all seven dwarves.

This challenging of expectations and upheaval of convention with some dark humor thrown in make this a fun group to see. Dark and mysterious, this is what emerges when the boys get a crack at the gendered norms of flower painting.

Florilegium is Latin and means literally a gathering of flowers, but in idiomatic terms a volume of writings. Given Mr. Dash’s proclivities for both, it is a very satisfying title for this series of flowers that are not quite that.

In an essay for a gallery show of the paintings presented soon after they were created, Brooks Adams called them “fleurs fatales and floral love deaths” and “melancholic and psychedelic.” Yes and yes. He argued for a comparison to Mark Rothko in Mr. Dash’s framing devices. Maybe. I would have to see more.

In any event, with Madoo open and the barn restored and its walls an inviting and appealing place to view art, it is worth a visit to take them in and draw your own conclusions. They are on view through June 10.­