Forty years ago, it was contrary to the “orders” which governed our lives to cultivate useless flowers, but, fortunately for those of us who loved them, there are many plants which are beautiful as well as useful. We always had extensive poppy beds and early in the morning, before the sun had risen, the white-capped sisters could be seen stopping among the scarlet blossoms to slit those pods from which the petals had just fallen... The rose bushes were planted along the sides of the road... but it was strongly impressed upon us that a rose was useful, not ornamental. – Sister Marcia Bullard, 1906


This past weekend, Fisher Parrish Gallery in Brooklyn opened Useless Flowers, a two-person exhibition of paintings and sculptural works by New York artists Caitlin MacBride and Sam Stewart.

The form of a bonnet is a point of common connection for MacBride’s oil paintings and Stewart’s sculptural lamps. In Useless Flowers, each artist focused on bonnets worn by the Shakers, a radical Christian sect that embraced craft, equality, frenetic worship, and celibacy. The bonnet itself, popular in the 19th century to denote modesty, often physically functioned as blinders for the wearer. Popular culture of the time often subverted the bonnet’s original use, redesigning them as flamboyant frivolous attention grabbers. The Shakers however, in keeping with everything they made, had strict guidelines for bonnet designs. When wearing a bonnet, the gaze is obscured for the wearer and those who wish to see them. The separation of public and private is controlled by the bonnet’s wearer, as is the choice to delineate oneself physically and spiritually from others.


Caitlin MacBride’s oil paintings explore soft tensions in sewn fabrics and twisted ropes. The intricacies of Shaker bonnets and old colonial beds mix with painterly expanses of color. Exploring the space where form abandons function, MacBride’s work binds the intimate to the structural. Using the grid as a bridge between the art historical and the everyday, the work engages pleats, gathers, and woven structures to overlay high and low. Texture and construction are analyzed in the painting process for a closer look at analog labor and handmade object-hood. Through the depiction of soft materials, the tension of passionate restraint is explored.


Sam Stewart’s lamp pieces emit a warm light, evoking the bonnet wearer’s interior life and simultaneous public presentation. Using meticulous craftsmanship, Stewart’s lamps blur the lines between practicality and absurdity. Although Stewart’s source material tends to be specific and carefully researched, the objects themselves reflect a liminal space that allows the viewer to forego reality. The fabric lampshade retains a permeability that elicits a visceral bodily relationship to this household object. Spaced throughout the gallery at a familiar height, Stewart’s lamps stand among us, becoming part of our own community. 

Useless Flowers is on view at Fisher Parrish Gallery through April 5, 2020.