Pipkin's Art in Full Flower


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By Michael O'Sullivan September 5, 2003

THE United States Botanic Garden would seem, on the surface, an ideal setting for an exhibition of flower paintings. It makes perfect sense that the kind of person who appreciates, for example, an up-close-and-personal inspection of an anthurium or a Guiana chestnut in full bloom would also enjoy the profusion of painted blossoms in "A Natural Response: The Art of M.M. Pipkin," an exhibition of exceptionally lifelike botanical watercolors on view in the Garden's West Gallery.

One could also argue that there's a kind of perverse presumption in situating, virtually side by side, nature and its scentless, textureless imitation, a boldness akin to placing the figures from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum next to their flesh-and-blood inspirations.

This is not to detract from Pipkin's skill or execution. True, her choices of subject matter are, at times, somewhat conventional. Roses, daffodils and their ilk dominate the show, not the more exotic plant varieties found in abundance here. Still, Pipkin's draftsmanship, exquisite sense of color and close attention to the play of dappled light on petals, leaves, stems and branches is impeccable, particularly in her large-format pieces.

As even artificial flowers are wont to do, Pipkin's art invites repose and quiet contemplation, particularly in its setting -- an air-conditioned, bench-lined respite from the steamy heat of the Botanic Garden's nearby "Jungle" environment or the blast of arid air that fills its ersatz "Desert." Pipkin's paintings may not provide the kind of multisensory pleasures that only a whiff of a peppermint-scented geranium can, or the rough thrill that comes from an accidental brush against the frond of a giant Kona palm, but sometimes art is its own reward.

A NATURAL RESPONSE: THE ART OF M.M. PIPKIN -- On view through Nov. 2 at the U.S. Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Ave. SW (Metro: Federal Center SW). 202-225-8333. www.usbg.gov. The conservatory building is open daily 10 to 5. Visitors are welcome in the nearby Bartholdi Park from dawn to dusk. Free.

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