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At Brown University, ‘Fertile Ground’ exhibition rethinks the art world’s romance with Mother Nature

“To them like water (Strand),” by Zoë Charlton.
Jeanette May
“To them like water (Strand),” by Zoë Charlton.

PROVIDENCE — “Fertile Ground,” organized by independent curator Heather Darcy Bhandari at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, spotlights three women of color who construct lush works about nature and the feminine. 

In the hands of white men through much of art history, this motif was limited to notions of bounty, mystery, and desire. In recent decades, women artists have found elements of oppression, identity, and grief in the picture, as well. 

Zoë Charlton’s grandmother, Everlena Bates, was a rare black woman landowner in early 20th-century Florida. Charlton, originally from Tallahassee, honors her in collages made with enlargements of decorative stickers, flowing and glittery, atop watercolor drawings of the lower half of a female nude. In “To them like water (Strand),” Hokusai-like waves rise and foam, twisting around serpentine palm trees. The taproot of the image is a woman’s rear. In Charlton’s work, the female form is at once the fount of extravagant nature and subsumed by it. 

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Drawing on native folklore, María Berrío, who grew in rural Colombia, builds breathtakingly dense, surrealist collages out of slivers of patterned and watercolor-washed Japanese paper. “In a Time of Drought” depicts two girls, ghostly and paper-white in intricately patterned garb, among goats along a mountain ridge. One lolls on the rocks; the other holds two dead kid goats. Layers of strips of glorious pastel watercolor evoke the clarity of mountain air. The enigmatic narrative suggests ritual and indolence, conflict between two sisters, and a moment of epic choice.

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Joiri Minaya, who had an exhibition at University Hall, University of Massachusetts Boston, last spring, funnels questions about power into works mimicking patterns made to appeal to tropical tourists. In “Container #3,” she wraps a woman head-to-toe in vivid floral spandex and poses her in a jungle, alluring yet camouflaged — earth and female merging as object of desire.

Bhandari bills “Fertile Ground” as a collage show. Minaya isn’t a collage artist, although she draws from myriad sources. But the idea holds, and the art process reflects nature: Out of scraps, shards, and throwaways, these three artists generate something fresh yet rooted in what came before, like flowers springing from compost. 

FERTILE GROUND

At David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, through Nov. 3. 401 863-2932, www.brown.edu/bellgallery 

Cate McQuaid can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.