Home Interior Design Budding artist Phaan Howng’s lush plant paintings and installations imagine how plants could one day take over the world

Budding artist Phaan Howng’s lush plant paintings and installations imagine how plants could one day take over the world

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Once upon a time, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a long-abandoned house found itself slowly engulfed in a camouflage of vegetation. Acid yellow sprouts with bright orange markings crept up the fireplace, mantle and floor of the house. Even the paintings that lined the walls were subsumed, bearing only these vegetal streaks, their original subject obscured.

These enveloping tendrils and vines, which one soon perceived with surprise or concern, all led back to a few humble houseplants, which had invaded all the elements of human architecture around them. Suddenly, and to our surprise, a strange imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger terminator could be heard in the whole housesaying “I’ll be back”.

This satirical premise meets science fiction was the underlying narrative of artist Phaan Howng’s first solo exhibition”I’ll be backwith New York’s Dinner Gallery in the spring of last year. And the exhibition reached almost cinematic levels of production. Through painstakingly detailed installations of hand-painted wallpapers, sculptures and paintings, Howng (b. 1982) has succeeded in transforming the ground floor gallery into an imaginary artifact of a near future. Victorian living room – a relic in a world now absent from human life. and reclaimed by the houseplants people once believed they possessed. Howng describes these works as “optimistic post-apocalypse” and the titles “make her laugh”, allowing her to deal with such “totally depressing” subjects.

Installation view "Phaan Howng: I'll be back" at the Dinner Gallery, New York, 2022.

View of the installation “Phaan Howng: I’ll Be Back” at Dinner Gallery, New York, 2022.

In recent years, the Baltimore-based artist has drawn increasing attention for these camouflaged plant installations and paintings, which investigate global capitalism, environmental crisis, and liberal arts through the lens of Victorian micro-stories and blockbuster action movies. In 2017-2018, she debuted The succession of naturean immersive art installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which highlighted local struggles against toxic waters through blatantly intense color tones.

Now Howng is back in the studio to work on a new set of canvases. slated for a solo presentation at the Armory Show with Dinner Gallery this fall that will riff on the conspiratorial TV show “Ancient Aliens,” she says. Recently, we spoke with this rising artist and dove into the myriad of influences at play in her sought-after works.

Lawn and order

Growing up in New Mexico and then South Florida, Howng has vivid memories of his father working to maintain the idyllic and lush American lawn – a nearly impossible task in environments naturally ill-suited to such perfect turf. These memories formed the basis of some of his early works; AAs an undergrad at Boston University, she built a portfolio centered around photorealistic oil paintings of her father meticulously working to trim hedges and mow the lawn.

“South Florida has a lot to do with my job. There are palms everywhere, but only one species of palm is native to South Florida,” she explained, “the others were imported. You realize that you are living in this invented image that Florida wanted to create for tourists. These first fascinations were transformed later in an exploration of gardens as places of control and how cultivated gardens intersect with work and the environment. “There’s the guy with fake rocks as speakers and AstroTurf who doesn’t want to mow the lawn against somebody who goes to town, planting whatever they want,” she notes, “but it’s all related.”

Courtesy of Phaan Hwong.

Courtesy of Phaan Howng.

In a series of works, Howng explored how Chinese and Japanese gardens tried to simulate art. “I had a garden exhibit that was based on Chinese landscape paintings, so two-dimensional abstract watercolors that people wanted to turn into their private installation,” she said. “I worked in supply chain at one point in my life and I kept thinking about how people were getting these things from point A to point B. Sometimes a rock was excavated down south from China, from a lake, then transported to Beijing. I wonder what labor was exploited there.

Then in 2020, at the height of the quarantine, when Howng, scrolling through her phone, noticed a particular trend – a growing number of houseplant influencers on social media – that sparked the most recent metamorphosis of her works. “I started to really wonder why we can’t understand climate change or take meaningful action, but we are interested in controlling nature in our homes. We objectivize plants in a way that I find strange and I started to wonder how houseplants even came into existence,” she said.

She has no talent as a green thumb, but has managed to keep some snake plants alive. “It inspired my ‘Snakes on a Plane’ paintings,” she laughed. Then one day, she had some sort of revelation. She began to consider the sensitivity of the plants themselves. “He is very Little Shop of Horrors,” she laughed.

Victorian Gothic Botanical Literature and Plant Revenge

Delving deep into the history of houseplants in 2020 and 2021, Howng quickly discovered that the Victorian era was a cultural high point for houseplants in the West, with many upper-class families building large greenhouses for preserve and nurture plants imported from distant and distant lands.

“I was reading a lot of botanical Gothic literature from the Victorian era and during that time all these new plants were coming to England. No one had ever seen them before,” she enthused. “People were very very suspect, and folklore and mythology have been built around plants. Many people believed that if you slept with a plant in your bedroom, you would die.

Installation view "Phaan Howng: I'll be back" at the Dinner Gallery, New York, 2022.

View of the installation “Phaan Howng: I’ll Be Back” at Dinner Gallery, New York, 2022.

She emphasizes an aspect of yellow journalism at the time that allowed these stories to flourish. “Expeditions to other parts of the world that brought these plants back were very risky and expensive,” she said. “To help fund the trips, these companies were spreading false information about man-eating trees in other parts of the world to generate interest.

These Victorian tales coalesced in his mind with his enthusiasm for HG Wells and Kate Chopin. “I had this moment where I thought how funny it would be for plants to have their ‘wake-up’ like Kate Chopin’s novel,” she said. “I thought about how plants could transform so they would never be moved by humans again.” These considerations have led to new work exploring pattern and camouflage. These canvases evocatively straddle the real and the unreal, with a hint of menacing latent potential.

“Before I started focusing specifically on plants, it felt like the Earth was defending itself after humans disappeared,” she explained. Now she says her works are related to speculative future, given the evolution of plants. The possibilities keep growing. “One idea is that the plant colors are going to be crazier and brighter and more vivid because of all the crap we put in the dirt. I use neon in my artwork, but the idea is that those hues have been transformed and adapted by plants,” she said. “Plants grow well.”

As for the work she is developing for the fall, Howng aims for an “IMAX experience” in which viewers are fully captivated and enveloped by the visuals of botanical life. She has no intention of straying from his pop-Victorian vegetal subject anytime soon. “It’s a rabbit hole that will last me another million years,” she said.

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