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In an early scene in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), a gregarious Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) inventories her deceased son’s garden for the visiting Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), eventually landing on a prized Venus flytrap known as Lady. Hepburn’s Venable explains of the unwitting flies in Lady’s orbit: “The Lady exudes this marvelous perfume which attracts them. They plunge into her chalice, and they never come out.” As it is here, the flytrap is often contextualized as a devouring or threatening force, much like kudzu (i.e. “the vine that ate the South”), foxglove, or poison ivy. But it is the particular potential of the opium poppy to be both seductive and deadly that preoccupies Ben Sanders in Poppies, his recent exhibition at Ochi Projects.
Sanders’ previous exhibition with the gallery, titled I Come to the Garden Alone (2018), flirted with botanical imagery as well, and featured paintings of various cut stems placed in anthropomorphized vases with coy, nervous, or irritated faces. Butterflies, ants, a picnic table, and a thorny vine all appeared throughout the work, suggesting the tensions between the wildness of nature and the controlled growth of a garden. The isolated blooms in Sanders’ 2018 paintings tended to appear in later, wilted stages, while the vases’ faces suggested animism, if not an active inner life. Overall, the exhibition portrayed a kind of creeping psychology within things, nodding toward nature—bounded, yet still troublingly independent.
In Poppies, Sanders has moved thematically from probing the psychology of plants to, in some sense, the sociology of them. Poppies focused squarely on the titular bloom, often arranged within no specific spatial environments or containers, except for the odd human skull. Sanders’ particular poppy is the Papaver somniferum variety. Its unripe seed pods secrete a latex containing the opium for which it is known.
The paintings are sometimes cartoonish, nearly always brightly colored, and consistently graphic. The glaucous surface of the poppy lends itself to Sanders’ characteristic airbrushing, creating vividly toned finishes that glow with turgid radiance, as in Opium Poppy with Fresh Milk (2020). Red Flower (2020) shows a poppy bursting into ragged bloom, white secretions dripping from either end of its meandering stalk. Forms that may be the anthers, but resemble pills, fly out in the painting’s uppermost section.
As with Red Flower, Sanders portrays latex secreting from the cut opium seed pod or stem in many of his works. This latex alternates in color—black, occasionally white, and in a few instances red. The black secretion from the poppy in Opium Poppy with Toyota (2020) paired with the auto manufacturer’s name suggests an unclear but nefarious parallel between oil, corporations, and/or car manufacturing, and opiates. The delicate, seamy curl of the green poppy seed pod and stalk beneath the text lingers like a snake on a dirt road. The eerie Opium Poppies with Razor Blades (2020), on the other hand, has great, graphic fun with its constituent parts: lurid orange poppies lead curling, purple stems with wrinkling leaves that weave around and through four crisply arranged razor blades. No latex secretes from the uncut pods, leavening the composition with threat.
The appearance of a misemployed razor blade invokes drug-related vice, or even suicide; here Sanders provides an oblique entry point into the poppy’s malicious sociological effects. The opiates derived from the opium poppy are used for medicinal purposes (morphine, codeine), but more often for heroin. By some estimates, around 90% of the world’s illicit opium production originates in Afghanistan, where opium farming accounts for a considerable portion of the national economy. Opium is, in short, a substance linking together myriad effects and forces in contemporary society: drug trafficking, palliative care, the opioid addiction crisis, economic and trade interests. While Sanders’ explorations of the opium poppy’s form and figure do not directly acknowledge any of these particular realities, the flower’s grim allure is the crux of Poppies, alongside the narcoleptic haze into death that its byproducts represent, and, in their ecstasy, obscure.
Death is ubiquitous throughout the exhibition: skulls appear in three of the large paintings and several more of the sketches displayed in the gallery’s back room. The skull represented—in painting, anatomy, or simply in the mind—occupies a peculiar anonymity: strange when inert, supernatural and terrifying when moving. While skulls are typically evacuated of all identifying flesh and cartilage, Sanders’ skulls in Opium Poppy with Supplicants (2020) have regained some of their fleshly parts; their tongues reach out for the poppy’s oozing liquid, while eyeballs roll up nearly out of their sockets in bliss. The animated, exaggerated features of each skull float against a gradated nowhere into which the ecstatic feeling is either distilled or obliterates anything outside of itself. Sanders’ accessible, appealing style is a wholesome, even slick veil over the darker themes he explores. As such, his Poppies paintings continuously obscure the tensions at their heart, generating a curiously comfortable discomfort.
The references across the exhibition to opium blooms, death, and ecstasy mirror the jagged figure opiates cut in contemporary American life—a palliative substance mis- or over-used, and part of a cycle of ailment, shame, pleasure, prescription, indulgence, disruption, death. As such, and as a viewer, one comes away from Sanders’ exhibition caught in a cross-current of graphic beauty and fraught meaning. The pleasure of opium1 is of course its ultimate threat. In Poppies, implied dangers are so often overtaken by confectionary colors and playful tone that the coherence of Sanders’ theme comes and goes, oscillating against a bleak reality that perhaps can never be wholly approached. Owing to this, Poppies is both substantive and insubstantial at once, beautiful and impossible to resolve.
Aaron Horst is a writer based in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Carla, Flash Art, and Art Review.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 23.