In a world where it feels like every subject has already been painted in every possible style, it is increasingly rare to encounter work that stands out – particularly when the genre has been around for centuries, as is the case with still life painting. Dorian Büchi’s recent series of paintings, Resilience, is situated somewhere within this historical lineage yet approaches its subject from a decidedly novel angle. The works are in fact ‘contemporary’ in the most literal meaning of the word (of our time):in subject, medium, style and narrative they reflect the world in 2020-21, when humanity is forced to come to terms with its place in the world, aware of its vulnerability to new diseases and its own destructive impact on the planet it inhabits.
Most noticeable in this new body of paintings is the subject matter. The prickly pear cactus is a recognisable plant almost anywhere in the world, and the plant’s global distribution is a testament the world’s interconnectedness: native only to the Americas, the cactus is now found across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and even on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. Here in Australia, the prickly pear was introduced from Brazil around 1839, and has since become an invasive species. It was precisely this remarkable ability to adapt to different conditions that fascinated Dorian Büchi. He started painting the plant after a trip to the south of Italy, where he brought one of its leaves, or cladodes, with him to his studio in the Swiss mountains. Despite the completely different climatic circumstances, the plant thrived and to the artist it became a symbol of nature’s resilience; particularly potent at a time when the fragility of nature in the face of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent.
“The prickly pear can survive almost anywhere. All you have to do is throw one of its cladodes on the ground and roots will form. This ability to adapt is absolutely fascinating to me, and is a compelling illustration of our times.”
This extraordinary ability to adapt can be a symbol of hope, but also highlights the plain need for ecosystems to evolve in a rapidly changing world. Interestingly, as the artist pointed out to me, the prickly pear is edible in its entirety (both the leaves and its fruits) – which might come in handy when other plants are unable to grow in their native environment as a result of global warming.
The prickly pear, as indeed many other cacti and exotic plants, also reflects the mindset of a younger eco-conscious generation that likes to surround itself with plants. Small prickly pear cacti are potted and sold in hip plants stores around the world as decorative accessories, and fit in perfectly with a contemporary Los Angeles or Byron Bay aesthetic. During extended periods of lockdowns in 2020-21, they also became the last connection to nature for many people who were stuck in small apartments in cities all around the world – adding another dimension to their contemporaneity.
This was indeed also the case for Dorian Büchi himself. As lockdowns sweeped across Europe in Spring of 2020, the artist found himself confined to his studio and apartment -an abnormality for the Swiss artist who normally spends large amounts of time in his country’s famous mountains. The prickly pear that he brought back from Italy, and which was now thriving in his studio, became his only direct connection to nature – and thus a logical choice of subject. As a symbol for the resilience of both nature and humanity in lockdown, the prickly pear is transformed by the artist into a protagonist of our recent lived experience – one that resonates with people across the globe. The blurry, airbrushed backgrounds against which the plants are portrayed are reminiscent of the blue backgrounds of highschool portrait photographs, and reinforce their appearance as portraits as much as still lifes.
Although the subjects and their origins are key considerations in Dorian Büchi’s paintings, their formal and material aspects are equally important. What makes these works stand out in the centuries-old tradition of paintings of plants, is of course also their technique and style. The cacti are rendered with an almost digital look, which is emphasised by the subtle colour gradients that are achieved by the artist’s use of an airbrush.
The paintings in the Resilience exhibition are complemented by four related sculptures. Three of these are slim wooden pieces in oak, red pear and white pear wood. Executed using traditional furniture-making techniques, the abstract compositions elevate an old craft into the artistic realm by emphasising the creative potential inherent in the technique. Whereas the wood would normally be destined to become a functional object (in fact, other parts of the oak that the artist used were turned into the door for a chapel near Zurich), Büchi’s use of a seemingly mundate technique emphasises its aesthetic aspects. Just as the sculptures give new life to the wood, the fourth piece recycles the by-product of the wood-turning process. The chips that have been removed from the tree logs were painted by the artist and turned into a blue chip sculptural work.
Dorian Büchi (b. 1989) is based in Zurich, and has exhibited in New York, Berlin and Geneva. He studied at the University of Arts in Zurich and the Parsons School of Design in New York.