|Artist Sarah Maloney poses with her work at the Kelowna Art Gallery.|
She was at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London when she came across a book that described the mania that occurred in the 1630s after tulips were introduced to Europe.
"It was one of the first recorded speculative market bubbles," says Maloney. "They were buying and selling a single tulip bulb for as much as a house in Rotterdam or Amsterdam.
"And, of course, like any speculative bubble, it collapsed. I'm reading about this as banks were all collapsing a few years ago, and I'm thinking, that's a really interesting idea."
Maloney, whose exhibition, Collapse, runs at the Kelowna Art Gallery until March 31, was in Britain to research the social histories surrounding humanity's fascination with flowering plants.
She had become interested in flowers through her earlier work with the human body - including pieces that visually melded lungs and trees, for instance - but was worried it was a facile theme for a female artist.
After all, women have long been linked with flowers in a variety of ways, and in days of yore, flower painting was considered a suitable pastime for genteel ladies, a reality not lost on an earlier generation of feminist artists.
So along with references to the emerging realities of early capitalism - especially its periodic bouts of recessionary collapse - Maloney also built in slyly subversive subtexts about women's subordinate position within the economic order.
The centrepiece of her exhibition is an antique reclining chair that was known as a fainting couch in Victorian times, presumably because women could use it when feeling stressed or overcome by what was then called hysteria.
Maloney covered the couch in red paisley, an intricately patterned fabric popular in the Victorian era, and implanted a bed of 20 bronze tulips. Their blooms partially open, the tulips swoon gracefully, just as the real-life plants do when they get too little light or water.
The exhibition also includes six wall pieces. Each features a pair of tulips that Maloney embroidered on paisley fabric and mounted in oak frames. They are shown from root to flower, as in botanical drawings, but twine engagingly together, almost as if they are courting.
Curator Liz Wylie, in a playful exhibition essay that riffs on the show's sexual frisson, notes the embroidered tulips look "a bit anthropomorphized, and even . . . naughty. Some seem to be caressing each other, others â€¦ dancing!"
Wylie points to the paisley's yin-and-yang motif, which visually and symbolically conjoins male and female, and she reminds viewers flowers are open to readings as stand-ins for female anatomy.
"The bronze tulips are all drooping, rather than standing up erectly - is this a feminist comment on the male principle? Or a depiction of female energy thwarted by history?"
One strength of Maloney's work is this playful quality. There's also pleasure to be found in its meticulous craft and its willing engagement with beauty, a contested notion in much contemporary art.
Far from strident, the work raises questions and nudges thoughtful viewers to consider the social histories embedded within the power dynamics of early capitalism.
Maloney, who earned a Master's degree in Fine Arts two decades ago at the University of Windsor, began incorporating embroidery and knitting into her art practice when her children were young, as she could work on it at home in snatches of time between parenting tasks.
She considers herself primarily a sculptor, however, and is working on a new body of metal sculpture, Water Level, that features water lilies hanging in a row on the wall, their dangling roots rusting as if they were submerged.
"I'm realizing that what I'm interested in here is almost landscape sculpture," says Maloney. "If you think of painters who paint landscape, what I'm after is this creating of landscapes."
Who: Sarah Maloney
Where: Kelowna Art Gallery, 1315 Water St.
When: To March 31