As a born and raised East Coaster with a visual affinity for straight lines, giant buildings and post-industrial decay, the desert landscape wasn’t an easy sell for me. I am guilty of—for a period of time—maintaining the ridiculous, easy and tired perspective of, “It’s just so brown.” A pretty embarrassing admission for a person whose life is steeped in the visual arts. It was the arts, however, that led me to explore this region’s mountain and desert areas, discovering the complex and fascinating plant life and all of its combined real and mystical beauty.

The metro Phoenix area is home to a number of artists who showcase and interpret elements of its natural world, sometimes recreating it, other times physically incorporating it into their work. In either case, seeing these artists’ compelling takes on our surroundings is a great pathway to developing a personal relationship with them. This month, Shade Projects is presenting the Photographic Survey of the Wild Edible Botanicals of Arizona, a solo exhibition by J.W. Fike, in Bokeh Gallery (at monOrchid). Fike’s solo show offers a truly magical look at the plant life with which we are fortunate to co-reside.

First off, Fike’s mastery of his medium is undeniable. He has formal training in photography and drawing, and has been exhibiting his artwork in galleries and museums for a couple of decades now. He also serves on the art faculty at Estrella Mountain Community College. The presentation and composition alone provide an eye-catching invitation to take a deeper study of these works. The pieces feature solo plants floating against a black background and are brought to completion through an interesting process. Fike excavates the plants and then does further arranging and the photographing in the studio. He then uses digital tools to render the edible parts in color, allowing the rest to be read as contact prints.

The overall results are vivid and remarkable. The plant at the fore of each photograph is electric. Even with the visibility of the roots and the apparent effects of the excavation, the plants look and feel vibrant and alive. The colors that highlight the edible portions come across as both sweet and important nods to science, further emphasizing the life cycle, and even our own personal relationships with nature. When the viewer looks beyond the plants and into the infinite black backgrounds, the pieces have a lost-in-space effect, inspiring reflection and examination, and evoking the pure magic of the unknown that surrounds everything.
“Hauntingly beautiful” is how Shade Projects’ curator, Nicole Royse, describes Fike’s work. “It results in striking and mystical imagery,” she continues. “He blends traditional contact prints and photograms with modern tools, creating refreshing images of everyday plants. The color draws in the viewer’s eye throughout the work.”

This body of work is part of a larger effort on Fike’s part. He’s already photographed plants in seven different states and ultimately wants to cover the entire United States. This show is a solid and intriguing examination of our personal and global ecological approaches, and how those can evolve.

J.W. Fike
Photographic Survey of the Wild Edible Botanicals of Arizona
Through October 30
Bokeh Gallery at monOrchid