I write this in spring; dead flowers bloom at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. They belong to Rosalie Smith’s My Mother’s Last Garden (2019), a palliative repurposing of the bouquets the artist’s mother received following her diagnosis with terminal cancer, up until her death.
The piece is an aberration in context, on view as part of the exhibition “Make America What America Must Become,” in which Southern artists pan our capitalist, carceral, colonial hell state. Nearly every piece addresses the United States’ most egregious policy failures: environmental racism, the human rights crisis at the southern border, the prison-industrial complex, and the brutality of the American healthcare system. The show’s title, which references a quote from James Baldwin, echoes that awful presidential campaign slogan—nostalgic for the violence of our nation’s past, while striving toward a profoundly inequitable vision of what makes America great.
Unlike the other pieces in the show, Smith’s is introspective. The work is elegiac, rooted in mourning. Smith has salvaged from her mother’s bouquets some one hundred dried and wilted flowers, coated them in resin, set them in mortar and cement, and arranged them in an austere grid. The petals she embalmed have faded to bland shades of sickness, earth, death, decay, and rot. Here, the sculpture appears to represent our collective mourning after a year of unrelenting loss in which we were unable to practice rituals of grief. Resembling rows of headstones, the work not only grieves the hundreds of thousands of newly departed, but also buries the myth of American exceptionalism: the fantasy of our nation is partly to blame for its present horror.
It’s raining today. More Americans were killed by the state. I turn again to Smith’s flowers. Despite having been planted in an infertile medium, they point upward—maybe even grow.
“One Work” is a new short-form review format in which writers focus on a single piece on view at a current exhibition.