Cig Harvey, Blue Violet

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Monacelli Press (here). Printed cloth hardcover (9 x 11.5 inches), 208 pages, with 76 color reproductions. Includes illustrations, drawings, and various texts by the artist throughout, as well as an afterword by Jacoba Urist. Design by Jeanette Abbink. (Cover and spread shots below).

Comments/Context: Flowers and plants, in all their stages, are the central characters of Cig Harvey’s new book Blue Violet. On a wooden table, bags of seeds lie ripped and scattered between soil-filled hemp containers. Under a bell jar, a sleepy hyacinth stretches her calyxes towards the blue morning light of early spring. Later in summer, a coy bush of roses marvels at its own reflection in the windows of a car. Elsewhere, a woman runs through a frenzy of blooming magnolia trees. Turn the pages and seasons change: frozen apples dangle from skinny twigs, while other branches of different trees are deprived of everything except a veil of snow. They are beautiful nevertheless, because life remains tangible – and in Cig Harvey’s eyes, radiantly so.

Throughout her twenty-five-year career, Harvey’s work “has always incited a jolt, eliciting a reflexive gasp of awe, triggered by memory and emotion,” writes Jacoba Urist in the book’s afterword. “In this regard, Blue Violet is no exception,” she continues, “and readers may be forgiven for assuming this, her fourth monograph, is about botanicals.”

Soon enough, however, the more time you spend with this book and the more you allow all your senses to engage with it, you’ll feel that these images, despite being of flora, are about something else: something deeper and less tangible, more saddening and celebratory, something all-encompassing and inescapable, like color. Harvey’s photographs waltz with an essence of what it means to be alive, to witness dying, and to continue to live.

“There is precedence for being drawn to color and nature when dying or surrounded by death,” Harvey writes at the beginning of Blue Violet. “Josef Albers dedicated his last years to the study of color,” and “Derek Jarman wrote Chroma . . . [a garden journal] while dying from AIDS.” Blue Violet continues this history and began to unfold in 2017, when the photographer’s close friend Mary, at age thirty-four, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She received treatment and went into remission, but the disease returned – and Harvey, through photography, tried to help her fight it.

“As Mary’s world becomes more and more restricted, she texts and FaceTimes, asking me to send pictures,” Harvey describes in her “Field Notes,” one of the many pieces of writing that accompany her images in this book. “Each day I go out and make something to send her. Each day she asks me to send more. It is late spring and then summer in Maine – glorious. As she loses her senses, I want her to experience them through my pictures.” Many (if not all) of the photographs that make Blue Violet the heartfelt object it is, were taken for Mary, and in response to her death in July 2019.

How to describe the impact of these images? They are indeed deeply sensational as they both literally and symbolically capture and transmit the urge to feel and make feel. They do so up-close and in full-bleed, one or two to a spread, with a lush, vibrantly vivid color palette. In one such photograph you’ll find yourself immersed in a jungle of wild flowers. Looming against a strip of late afternoon sky, their stalks crisscross the frame as if to tickle or caress you. In another one, a sorority of silky-red poppies comes at you head-on. You can almost palp the texture of their petals. Smudged and a bit disheveled, they look like they had a long night out, but their pistils are fluffy and crisp, inviting you to lean in and listen to their stories.

Secrecy and marvel are perhaps the best words to describe the sensory abundance that Harvey finds in, and distills from, the everyday – not just in flowers and petals, but formations of clouds, bodies of water, in the view from a window, or her daughter’s enchantment while watching the sparks of a disco ball dancing on the walls of a barn. And then there are those images that more explicitly represent or respond to the feeling of loss, even if gloriously so. Some are achingly direct, such as the dahlia compost heap that Harvey found only years after repeated visits to a flower farm. “Dahlias die from the back, their faces still perfect while their undersides decay, so they are deadheaded while seemingly in their prime,” she writes in fragment preceding this photograph. Others are more obscure and cryptic – such as a solemn arm set against dark, oily water – and are often haunted by the presence a girl or a young woman, seen in part or from their backs, with eyes closed or directed elsewhere.

Throughout history, artists have used flowers and the natural world to convey emotions and memories. A number of recent projects and publications (for instance, Celine Marchbank’s Shot in Isolation, or Toxic Plants by An+) prove that photography continues to be part of this ongoing dialogue. What makes Blue Violet stand out is Harvey’s acutely personal yet kaleidoscopic exploration of its subject matter and the sustained dialogue with her own artistic practice. All of her three previous monographs emerged from emotionally impactful events – such as finding love after betrayal (You Look At Me Like An Emergency), becoming a mother (Gardening at Night), and a horrific car accident (You an Orchestra You a Bomb). So does Blue Violet. Here, however, there is something more specific and refined, perhaps less redundant and therefore more relatable about the images and texts, and the ways in which they come together. This is partly because Blue Violet is a compendium: not just of photographs, but drawings, sketches, diagrams, and graphs, which are echoed, expanded, enriched, and played with by a plurality of texts that range from memories and thoughts, recipes and research, synesthesia and botanical facts, to the small hard-won wisdoms of living a life rich in feelings. In fact, it is a book that incites you to feel more of everything.

In this way, and in many others, Blue Violet is as symbolic as it is grounded in the factual. Throughout the book, this duality manifests in the color pink (not blue, as you might expect). Harvey’s favorite (she wears it when she writes), pink appears on the endpapers and throughout her photographs, in flowers and garments, but also as the color of mourning.

In her final “Field Note” she writes: “A year later on July 16, we scatter Mary’s ashes off an island in Penobscot Bay. Her ashes are pink. Not the neon pink that had rushed through me that day the year before but a very pale pink. Monica standing next to me says that her dad’s ashes were different. That they were dark gray. Problematic, coarse ashes, with the weight to them of the things unsaid. Not Mary’s. Mary’s ashes are fine powder, and they shimmer in the sunlight as they are released into the air.”

In the end, Blue Violet is a journey of loss and grief, love and comfort – of finding meaning, and beauty, in all of it. “We give flowers when there are no words,” Harvey writes on the final pages. Defying her own truism, she has managed to give us both in this beguilingly tender and utterly heartbreaking book.

Collector’s POV: Cig Harvey is represented by a number of galleries in the United States and elsewhere:

  • Robert Mann Gallery in New York, NY (here)
  • Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, GE (here)
  • Robert Klein Gallery in Boston, MA (here)
  • Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, ME (here)
  • Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles, CA (here)
  • Huxley Parlour Gallery in London (here)
  • Galleria del Cembalo in Rome (here)

Harvey’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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