By Anna Weltner
Artist WB Eckert is constantly surprised at the effect his innocent calla lily paintings have on viewers. Most people, understandably, are stricken by their beauty, their unexpected translucence, and the way they seem to thrive and expire with equal grace. Many leave feeling afflicted by the flowers’ alien strangeness. Some, oddly, feel their cheeks reddening with embarrassment in the presence of these larger-than-life flowers, finding them reminiscent of, maybe, an extraterrestrial’s genitalia. If Eckert had his way, no one would look at a calla lily the same again.
At first, it’s all kind of cute, a nice man painting flowers. But there’s more than that going on in Eckert’s show “Dreams in a Rorschach Garden,” held at his Studios on the Park space. As the title suggests, the sight of these simple, white forms incites a variety of reactions in observers, things that speak as much to the personality of the viewer as the power of the work itself.
“It’s surprising, people’s reactions,” said the painter and photographer. “People are very curious. No two people react to a piece of art the same way at all.”
The artist is treating the exhibit, which hangs through Sept. 25, as a gardener would. If you want to buy one, he’ll pick it for you on the spot, and before you know it, another will have sprung up in its place. Eckert has also hung the work on the wall rather indiscriminately, mimicking the unplanned abandon of nature.
This idea, he says, started years ago, when he was called upon to paint a large piece above the altar of a Catholic church. It was a tree that changed with the liturgical seasons: dead and dried out during Lent, blooming on Easter.
“I minimized it, took it down to the bare essentials, and then, at the end of the season, it all grew,” he said. “The change, what it does is it allows people to look at it in a different way, to almost experience it in a meditative situation that you can’t do in real life. In real life, things happen too fast.”
One work in the lilies series conjures rolling surf, while others resemble fairy cradles or ghost’s nightgowns. One piece, titled Moonlight Rhythms, depicts a cluster of lilies, their forms elegantly warping the stripes of shadows cast by blinds. In a work that was unfinished at the time of our interview, another flock of lilies, flighty creatures with orange spadices demurely concealed within soft white leaves, surrounds a single, larger flower: the courtesans and the king, Eckert explained.
Of course, the close shots of flowers—the sex organs of plants, actually—draw comparisons to O’Keefe, but Eckert was thinking more along the lines of Mapplethorpe as his brush described their smooth, delicate folds.
The flowers’ impossibly white coloring is another deception of the show.
“The thing about the lily that really got me going is, they’re white,” he said. “So white that they reflect every color around them.”
The sky, the surrounding flowers, the ground, the leaves, all of it gets projected onto the white petals—just as viewers project their own personalities onto the paintings. Some see only beauty, while others crack sex jokes. Others don’t know what to think.
“However you want to look at it, each one of us is the center of the universe—to us,” Eckert mused. “We read everything by ourselves. If a painting is really, really good, we sometimes learn things about ourselves that we didn’t know. That’s what’s really fascinating.”
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can learn a lot of things from the flowers. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stop and smell the lilies
WB Eckert’s “Dreams in a Rorschach Garden” hangs at Paso Robles’ Studios on the Park, 1130 Pine St., through Sept. 25. The studio is open Thursday through Sunday, from noon to 6 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays until 9 p.m.). Visit studiosonthepark.org, or call 238-9800.