ALL FLOWERS IN TIME BEND TOWARD THE SUN
Friends at Gildar Gallery welcome Joey Cocciardi back to the floor for his exhibition 1–800-FLOWERS. At first, 1–800-FLOWERS feels like walking into an orthodontist’s appointment: large floral patterned artwork welcomes you and doesn’t offend you. Tame and timeless paintings depict pretty flowers and their plant bodies. Step a little closer and begin to notice the depth of color of Cocciardi’s paintings and the reservoirs of condoms (used!?) peeking from behind the petals. Maybe this is one of those edgy orthodontists…the kind you don’t take home to Mommy and Daddy.
Cocciardi’s works are deeply tied to the history of Western painting. His arrangements remind us of the Golden Age of Dutch still life painting. Typically with a black background, painters would preserve a table full of affected objects on a table. Cocciardi is doing the same thing but in today’s world. Cocciardi is preserving things that don’t need to be preserved: provalactics, plastic bags, gloves, and other extreme disposables. Perhaps Cocciardi’s paintings are a little more honest than the Dutch painters’ in that it’s pretty hard today to isolate a bunch of beautiful things without having to brush away some litter. So do we welcome all the other debris into our world as pretty imperfections? Do we welcome them into the world of what we call “nature”? Were they ever not part of nature to begin with?
Aside from a display of skill, Seventeenth Century Dutch still lifes were an opportunity for artists at the time to explore associations. The arrangement of different objects on a table often carried a moralistic message. Imagine a tableaux, atop which sits a piping hot cornish hen, then a bouquet of pansies, then a skull — a human one. Food rots, flowers decay, and man is mortal. When a contemporary artist inserts themselves into the narrative of historical painting, what conclusions can be drawn? If we try to tease a message out of a dandelion sitting in one of those black plastic bags that you only get at the liquor store what can you say?
The Dutch Still lifes served another purpose for the Nobles who commissioned them. They were a boast: a table of rare game, precious silver, etc. A modern analog would be holding your phone high over your plate at brunch to post on Instagram. If Cocciardi is “commissioning” the works himself then what is he trying to show us? I’m not saying Cocciardi is gloating by any means, but I think it is a brag for the artist in us all to take something ugly and make it pretty. It makes you more interesting and fun to see beyond typical associations and explore the imaginative potential of the mundane. My favorite recent example of this in the general collective conscious is finding some kind of pattern or beauty in sprawl or mass production. On a bad day. manufacturing or construction could remind you of depressing things like omnipotent capitalism, the commodification of everyday life, and the divide and conquer of communities. While these are wicked realities that are important to be aware of, they are still just a piece of the picture. Like look! Those traffic cones look like a little family! Look at how all those construction cranes criss-cross the horizon like a big Chutes’n’Ladders game! Industrial spark fireworks! Spooky, reflective, iridescent greens, oranges, and yellows! It is far more impressive to create enjoyment than to purchase it. It’s that type of empowerment that makes you a decent human being and that is certainly worth showing off. The powerful part of art like 1–800-FLOWERS is its ability to welcome the scary parts of life and make them less frightening.
If 1–800-FLOWERS nods to the Golden Age of Dutch painting, it eye rolls Romantic painters of the Nineteenth Century. Our notion of nature with a capital “N” is an aesthetic one. It was invented rather than discovered. This vision of bucolic rolling hillsides, greenery, and wildlife is founded by artists and writers who felt that accelerating industrialization alienated them from a previous way of life they preferred. Its called Romanticism and its baseless. The closer you look, the more you see that nature is chaos, and there’s no telling where the natural and unnatural begin and end.
The painting Bargain the Bunch depicts some red carnation-looking flowers in one of those tiny bags someone sells you earrings (but more often drugs) in. Both items look like you could find them along a curb and both items are supple and useful. In fact, both the flowers and the baggy were both purchased from the dollar store and cast into the painting. Cocciardi eliminates the distance between the two rather than highlighting it. By equating the baggy and the flower — objects representing our way of life — we see them as a part of a system for which we are responsible. Without taking care of the delicate flower species, they could die out, and without taking care of how we make and dispose of our little baggies, they could snowball the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre. How cute!
Cocciardi has taken our trash and set it aside our treasure not to be ironic but the opposite. The cynicism of comparing our “fake” man-made stuff with “real” nature stuff is a tired trope and Cocciardi is better than that. He isn’t Banksy. Cocciardi marries the two without a value judgement. Experience is a two way street and it can leave behind a guilty conscience. It’s impossible to look at something without changing it. You can’t go to the Galapagos Islands without bringing an invasive species. You can’t go to the top of Mount Everest without shitting on it. 1–800-FLOWERS, however, celebrates the voluptuousness of looking in innocence. Imagine how much fun all the junk in Jean Marzollo’s Eye Spy books were for a pleasant moment of nostalgia. Unburdened by judgment, we have the ability to untether our view of the present from the past and hitch it to futures. The notorious opaque black plastic of the liquor store bag doesn’t signal for addiction and hopelessness, it’s just a shiny toy that floats in the air or helps you carry something. The plastic gloves don’t signal disease and danger, they’re just a bright purple you get to see very often in the wild.
Cocciardi the florist is a realist and he’s practical. Instead of bows and ribbons, he ties his bouquets with found street debris. The disposables and annuals the same weight and color; issuing his arrangements to us without discrimination of where they are from or where they are going. Instead, he powders our noses in pollen and reminds us to enjoy the moment. While this doesn’t suggest that we slide down to the HAZMAT site and drool at the rainbows in oil, there is something powerful about approaching the complexities of life from a place other than panic. As with all great art, 1–800-FLOWERS capitulates the infuriatingly constant lesson that there is light in the dark and dark in the light.