In the television show “Twin Peaks,” investigations into “Blue Rose cases” were efforts to solve the impossible. If a murder or disappearance carried the moniker of “Blue Rose” it was a crime, a hurt, a transgression, that carried the mark of the unexplainable: something beyond the reach of humanity happened here. To encounter a “Blue Rose” event was to be changed by the ineffable, to experience something greater—both terrifying and awe-inspiring—than oneself.
The blue rose, the “blue flower” in general, as a symbol for sensation and experience beyond our reach has its origins in the Romanticism of the late eighteenth century. The art and literature of the period positioned the blue flower, a flower not found in nature, as pure poetry: the artist’s quixotic vision of excess, ideal and romance. When you think of the blue flower, think of what you strive to touch, to understand, to see, to feel, but always remains just out of reach. For the Romantics, the blue flower was creativity itself and the artist’s journey for such inspiration: both the despair and elation of knowing the color, the word, the gesture, the stroke, the sound that would make everything fit and the knowledge that such unity is somewhat impossible in this life. Artist Paula Kamps incorporates such shapeshifting into the heart of “Word of Honor,” up at M. LeBlanc gallery.
Flowers, waxy and ethereal, creep upon the walls. Distemper, acrylic and oils impart petals with ghostly halos, a vague remembrance you just can’t shake. Kamps’ figures are the players upon this painted stage, all diaphanous skin, pooling eyes, and the malignant auras that angels and demons hold in kind. While some of Kamps’ paintings are still lifes of flowers both imagined and grasped from real life, the crinkled red of a petal jutting toward you like stained creped skin, other works contain a cast of esoteric characters conjured from dreams and the arcane.
Three of these figurative paintings Kamps’ calls “fortune telling machines.” Though the show’s notes highlight one of the oracular trio (“Let the magic heart give your love rating,” 2023), it is a tricky endeavor to name the other two pieces. I say this as Kamps has created an exhibition where each piece is imbued with a sense of grasping, of journeying, of taking one more step, one more look in order to know what it is that you have been looking for across days and nights. The Romantic meaning of that far-off blue flower then returns in this desire for truth, for beauty, for prophecy, for vision, for the deus ex machina that sets fire to our pineal gland.
In the pink and blazing “Who would trouble oneself about a flower?” (2023), three figures are trisected by a tree branch that extends into a horizontal “y.” Two of the three figures float in profile in the uppermost portion of trouble’s three fields. The duo’s eyes are unnaturally wide, pupils float unmoored in pools of white stained by the painting’s illuminated blush. One of the pair runs a hand through their hair as a few lone tree leaves kiss their faces. They look down at the third member of the trio with feelings that could be read as alarm, awe or the innocent gut punch of shock. The third member of the group is positioned below the pair above and horizontally in line with the painting’s branches.
This third figure looms larger than the two faces twinned in their delicacy. The collar and hair of the third person brings to mind the classic Romantic hero; a brooding face with Lord Byron locks and the sartorial sense of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer.” In the positioning of the three figures, with the Romantic hero’s gaze reaching beyond the waifish pair, there is an aura of some inscrutable fatalism. There is a feeling that this is a discovery from which there is no return.
In Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a novel that functions as a precursor to Romanticism, a sensitive and passionate artist (the titular Werther) dies by suicide as he sees no other way to resolve a tortured love triangle. Werther’s death in turn became the scapegoat for mass moral panic (panic I would situate within the rise of capital and how said rise changed the role of art within society, as seen through the novel’s growing popularity and the Romantic’s desire for art to be a container for oceanic feeling—but I digress). Yet, I mention Werther and the panic his character caused as I see this same swelling, that unstoppable pollination of an idea, a new way of being in the world, an answer, within this trio.
The sear of discovery, of epiphany, makes a strange impact; you’re both within and outside your body. This sensation changes you. Elation and terror meet and it is this meeting I see in the glances, the gestures, and the faces of Kamps’ characters. Yet, from the mention of David Lynch’s “Blue Rose” murders and the death of Goethe’s “Werther,” I don’t believe this collision to be one of ill fortune. I don’t think Kamps believes this either, as luck and hope were always found in the Romantic’s blue petals and the possibilities of the oracle. There’s a playfulness throughout the work that sneaks up on you, like in Kamps’ “The Violator” (2023).
With twin curlycues that serve as eyebrows, and a small rainbow dashed upon the face, the “Violator” is a child caught in what looks like a guttural laugh of a small goblin. Spots of bright primary blue, yellow and red, dot lips and cheeks, while eyes gaze out with a slightly off-kilter expression. The Violator takes what you think you know about Kamps’ painting, really the possibilities of painting itself, and turns it on its head. Isn’t that what makes an oracle; a seer, a trickster, a force that opens doors and possibilities? Remember to laugh when your carnival fortune, your tea leaves, your tarot foretell doom because beyond that hill lies something like wonder, because endings and opportunity sleep hand in hand, and because you never really know what could happen next.
“Paula Kamps: Word of Honor” is on view at M. LeBlanc, 3514 West Fullerton, through February 17.