The Congress Woman, Peony (Paeonia sp.)
1120 x 840 mm print size, 1170 x 890 mm framed
Edition 2 of 6, plus 2 artist copies
Courtesy of the artist and Two Rooms, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland
Estimate: NZD 8,000 — 11,000
The Congress Woman, Peony (Paeonia sp.) is one work out of a trio Shelton refers to as ‘The Three Sisters’, which itself is part of the ongoing overarching series jane says. Shelton’s series Jane says depicts plants, herbs and flowers that have historically been associated with herbal traditions for controlling reproductive health.
The flower depicted in Shelton’s photograph is known as a Dinner Plate Peony, recalling Judy Chicago’s pioneering 1979 work The Dinner Party. The Congress Woman also makes reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women of colour elected into the 116th United States Congress in 2019. The Congress Woman, Peony (Paeonia sp.) reflects on the general authority women can have in articulating their own personal and political power through civic systems circling their bodies.
Artist Biography & History
with Artspace Aotearoa:
One Hundred and Fifty Ways of Loving, 22 February — 11 March 1994, curated by Ann Shelton, Paul Booth and Kirsty Cameron
Kiosk: Modes of Multiplication (group), 25 March — 29 April 2006, a travelling archive of independent publishing projects on contemporary art compiled since 2001 and organised by Christoph Keller
Starving Artists Fund Art Auction (group), 2005
Folklore: The New Zealanders (group), 8 July — 1 August 1998, subsequently toured to Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, 10 October — 22 November 1998
Redeye (Book launch and exhibition), 26 — 29 June 1997, subsequently toured to The Manawatu Art Gallery, Te Papa-i-Oea Palmerston North, The Art Annex, Ōtautahi Christchurch, and Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Ōtepoti Dunedin, The Dowse Art Gallery, Te Awakairangi Lower Hutt, and was exhibited as part of Fotofeis at The Arches, Glasgow, Scotland
Oestrogen Rising! (group performance), November 24 1996, coordinated by Tessa Laird
Laying it On Thick: Hit Me, Spurn me, Shoot me, Sell Me (group), 31 January — 23 February 1996
One Hundred and Fifty Ways of Loving (group), 22 February — 11 March 1994, curated by Ann Shelton, Paul Booth and Kirsty Cameron
Gift of the Artist (group), 1993
Works by Shelton were illustrated in Nostalgia for the Future, a catalogue published in 1999 on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name, curated by Stella Brennan and exhibited at Artspace from 5 November to 27 November 1999.
Shelton appeared in, and often had a hand in making, the catalogues produced the accompany all of the exhibitions listed above.
Ann Shelton (b. 1967, Aotearoa New Zealand) received her MFA from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. She lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, New Zealand and exhibits internationally. Her most recent museum survey, Dark Matter, curated by Zara Stanhope (Director, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Ngāmotu New Plymouth, Aotearoa New Zealand), was hosted by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2016 and toured to Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū in 2017. The catalog accompanying the exhibition included essays by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Ulrich Bauer, Donna West Brett, Dorita Hannah and John Di Stefano, and Stanhope.
Shelton is represented by Two Rooms Gallery (AK, NZ), Bartley and Company Art (WGTN, NZ) and by Denny Dimin Gallery (NY, USA), where she recently had her first solo exhibition in the United States. Her recent body of work, jane says, has been exhibited internationally and the accompanying performance The physical garden, has been performed numerous times. Shelton’s work has been extensively written about and reviewed in publications including Artforum, Hyperallergic, Journal of New Zealand & Pacific Studies, artnet news, The Art Newspaper, and the Evergreen Review. Her works are included in public and private collections throughout Aotearoa New Zealand and in the United States. Shelton’s most recent research engages with plants and plant narratives; in particular the intersection of plant histories with human knowledge and belief systems. Shelton is a Honorary Research Fellow in Photography at Whiti o Rehua, School of Art Massey University. Her latest book mother lode was published in 2020 by Bad News Books, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.
The Congress Woman by Tessa Laird, 2021
The Congress Woman, Peony (Paeonia sp.) is both an individual work, and part of a trio known as The Three Sisters. Like Russian dolls, that mini-series is nested inside the larger ongoing series jane says in which ikebana-inspired floral arrangements are photographed against eye-popping colours. These botanical portraits are ravishingly retro chic, but not just pretty faces. Flowers hold secrets – symbolic languages which can be read like code by would-be lovers – but also chemical powers to heal, harm, or intoxicate. Shelton’s artfully gathered plants possess medicinal qualities and speak to herstories of other artful gathering, by herbalists, wise women, and witches. Herbs and flowers that can bring on menstruation or induce abortion have been utilised for millennia by women controlling their own bodies.
Shelton’s most notorious work is the 1997 book Redeye, filled with lurid portraits of a particular niche of the Auckland art scene. Shelton is still photographing portraits, but her subjects, like Daphne, have morphed from people into plants, suggesting that plants are people too. Each floral assemblage represents a feminine archetype, traditional (The Witch, The Nurse) or contemporary (The Super Model).
The Three Sisters share a feature flower, the 'Dinner Plate Peony', in acknowledgement of Judy Chicago’s epic The Dinner Party (1979). While Chicago celebrated historical women through floral imagery, she was criticised for emulating patriarchal traits of rampant self-promotion and the attribution of collective work to a singular author. Similarly, the potential toxicities of jane says are pharmakon: the poison is also the cure. For how can women survive patriarchy without playing the power game? Indeed, The Justice is inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, while The Congress Woman pays tribute to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women of colour elected to the United States Congress in 2019.
The Congress Woman’s flushed, dewy face sprouts from a squat vase which reads frontally as having two legs, adding to the flower’s personification. The shafts of wheat-like grasses that frame the focal flower could indicate labour or fecundity. But equally, the bed of kangaroo paws, crowded into the base of the vase, could nod towards the colonisation of the Antipodes, the towering wheat stalks symbolising crops which Anglicised the lands declared terra nullius.
The Three Sisters is a term borrowed from the First Nations agriculture of Turtle Island: corn, beans and squash thrive together like siblings, providing each other with shade, support, and sustenance. Pottawatomi botanist Robin Kimmerer sees the Three Sisters as a metaphor for “an emerging relationship between indigenous knowledge and Western science”. Kimmerer also considers the complementary purple and yellow of asters and goldenrods as a metaphor for seeing the world through these two lenses. Purple and yellow also feature in jane says, but The Three Sisters share a background of irradiated salmon, inspired by Janelle Monae’s sapphic anthem Pynk.
Through Shelton’s rose-tinted lens, we see the many shades of feminism as complementary rather than antagonistic. We see the marriage of secret knowledges and public discourse: The Party Girl and The Influencer are The Congress Woman’s pink sisters. While it is The Nurse who, appropriately, features the opium poppy, the pink peonies of The Three Sisters, particularly the full-blown bloom of The Congresswoman, recall the tall poppy syndrome, which disproportionately affects women in power, while discouraging other women from seeking it. Shelton’s portraits reclaim that power, taking humble floral arrangements and reflecting them at twice, even thrice, their natural size.