Eight thousand blooms hang on bright copper wire in Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Garden's (CR) new art-meets-horticulture installation. Designed by London-based artist Rebecca Louise Law, Casa Coastal is the culmination of a year's worth of collaboration by CR staff, hundreds of community gardeners who volunteered by coaxing blooms in their own yards or helping to tend CR's extensive gardens, and the artist. The result is a successful mash-up of education, community involvement in art-making, and promotion of water-wise and native cultivation.
Law wasn't able to attend the June opening because she just gave birth, but she sent her team with precise dimensions to work side-by-side with CR to arrange the artwork within the mansion's gallery. Four thousand of the suspended flora were grown on Casa Romantica's grounds, and it's one of the many pleasures of the exhibit to spot a hanging bloom already well into the drying process, then go hunt for it still vibrant on the stem outdoors. The artist's compatriots from London told CR staff that this is the first of Law's many global installations to incorporate flowers actually grown at the site.
Walking into the gallery, you might expect a mountain's worth of blossoms. But what you find are two mirrored arrangements of cascading lines, about 24 wires across and 12 deep that form a tunnel. Once you step in and turn your body, the uniformity of the display disappears and a kind of visual chaos looms all around. Lion's tail and a shell are in extreme closeup while a blur of jade, bird of paradise—which look even more like birds when upside down—yellow buttons, Cleveland and Mexican sage, and a dozen forms of succulent hang at various depths. Gallery lamps and curtain-free windows light the specimens, sparking off the copper. A glow at the end of each tunnel is masked by panels, one singular and one double, suggesting the famous go-toward-the-light of crossing over.
The docent on duty, who keeps visitors from touching anything and thereby accelerating the natural processes at work (bougainvillea petals were already on the floor), observed that quite a few visitors that day had been visibly moved by the display. Law's team from London told CR staff during the physical installation that it's a common response everywhere the artist's pieces are installed—whether it's 8,000 or 27,000 or 50,000 flowers mounted as a canopy, an arch or suspended. Is it the hanging upside down of the blooms? They appear lynched, yet pretty; dead, and yet not quite dead yet. Many of Law's installations are permanent, and continue to desiccate in a seeming forever. Suspended above, and suspended in time. A lovely limbo, or as the artist named one series, "the beauty of decay."
As for Casa Coastal, it will be taken down August 13 and turned into mulch for the CR gardens, which are currently a profusion of blooming water-wise plants. And what's a better definition of mulch than the beauty of decay? Law's creations certainly have a humorous side as evidenced by The Hated Flower, assembled from tens of thousands of carnations and chrysanthemums. And while the flowers on the copper wires in San Clemente will indeed dry out all summer, becoming like a surprise you'd find pressed into an old thrift-store book, the seashells and the colors and oddball shapes provide the whimsy needed to counter the fact we all wither.
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In examining each drying specimen in the gallery, it's startling to come across baby's breath and roses, not exactly drought-tolerant stuff. Turns out, brides and grooms married at Casa Romantica have been donating their wedding flowers to the project, as have local florists, cities and Russell Stationers, who provided the shells. There's even a tea augmented with leftover lavender named for Casa Coastal for sale in the gift shop.
"Preserving, treasuring, celebrating and sharing the beauty of the Earth with the world is what drives me," says Law. The entire life cycle—of plants, of humans, of creative endeavor—is incorporated into this summer's exhibit. It's definitely worth a look-see. But good luck dodging the selfie-taking melee.
Casa Coastal: Rebecca Louise Law at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, 415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente, (949) 498-2139; www.casaromantica.org. Through Aug. 13.