Ebony G. Patterson at NYBG

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday June 8, 2023


Exceptional art offers an experience apart from explanation. There’s hardly been a better demonstration of this notion than the experience offered by Ebony G. Patterson in her installation titled …things come to thrive…in the shedding…in the molting…, currently on view at the New York Botanical Garden. Patterson turns a light onto dark subjects: the violence, extinction, annihilation and erasure brought by colonialism, against both people and plants, that continue through the present—and which are embodied, in her view, by the garden as a site of beauty and violence. As the Botanical Garden’s first artist in residence, she furthered these ideas, which have their roots in her childhood fascination with the formal gardens of Jamaica.

Patterson spent a year among its collections—both living and archived. In the process she discovered specific connections between looking and seeing, living and dying. All life on Earth, she says, is in a constant process of turning over from old to new: death, decay and loss make way for regeneration and new life. 


Beauty, death and regeneration are indelibly intertwined here, exemplified by the glittering black cast glass figures of what seem to be hundreds of vultures, and the white cast glass forms of what seem to be hundreds of extinct plants. It is possible to understand some of what drives her probing explorations by looking closely at the combinations of those sculpted forms with plantings of blood-red and nearly black flowers that Patterson creates. The experience of taking this in visually starts with its beautyan entry point which, the artist says, is also a trap: a trap she has formulated to keep us from turning away from difficult subjects.

Among these are the violence done to Black people that lives beyond the formal bondages of colonialism into present-day societal bondages that beget the same cycle of violence, trauma and imposed invisibility. The installations in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory are mesmerizing in their beauty and form. The ways in which Patterson combined these with seasonal plantings can be explored in greater depth through the artist’s statements on the accompanying text panels. To dig even deeper into her thinking and processes, the easily accessible audio guide, spoken by the artist herself, offers more information.

The exhibition continues in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where the research Patterson conducted during her year-long residency is made visible. Here she uncovered plant specimens collected from the four corners of the world. Many of these were the last sample of a living species before it vanished forever (example, left).

Patterson found that over the last several hundred years, human impact on the landscape has caused once-constant extinction rates to skyrocket to somewhere between 100 to 1,000 times the expected baseline. The timeline, thus exposed, is strikingly obvious.

Also on view in the library building is …fester (below), a new installation of glittering tapestry that combines decorative trims, tassels, lace and beads with gilded skeletons, resin vultures, and hundreds of red gloves installed in the rotunda, which is wallpapered in the artist’s designs. On the 6th floor is Study for The Observation: The Bush Cockerel Project, A Fictitious Historical Narrative (2012), a three-channel video projection.

The Botanical Garden is hosting a regular series of programs both in the conservatory and out among the plantings of this 250-acre site. Info 

A richly illustrated catalog will be published by Rizzoli Electra in the fall, with essays by essays by Joanna L. Groarke, Vice President of Exhibitions and Programming at The New York Botanical Garden; Karenna Gore, founder and executive director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary; Abra Lee, a storyteller, horticulturist, and author; and Seph Rodney, Ph.D., visiting art critic at Yale Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and former opinions editor at Hyperallergic. All photos courtesy New York Botanical Garden

Through September 17 at New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Brons, NY Info