The Orchid Show: Brazilian Modern

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through April 12.

When I first started elementary school, I was enrolled in a class for “gifted” students in which we studied a variety of topics one at a time, each in immersive depth: a week on octopuses, for example, or an entire month on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not entirely sure what the philosophy behind the program was, but I remember loving it. One of my favorite units was on artist Georgia O’Keeffe. At the age of six or seven, I could identify her paintings immediately and talk about the abstraction and the New Mexico landscape and the colors and what the skulls might symbolize and on and on and on, but being six or seven, I completely missed the … shall we say subtext of O’Keeffe’s florals, which were my favorite. Years later, when I was in college, I was deeply flustered to discover that most people read those extreme close-ups as, at least in part, a celebration of female genitalia and sexuality. Suddenly that was all I could see, too. For good or ill, the pretty, pretty flowers of my childhood had been irrevocably eroticized.

Wandering through the New York Botanical Garden’s orchid show, I felt embarrassed for my teenage self all over again because, honestly, how do you not see it? Orchids, in particular, with the outer petals and inner petals, frills and tendrils, bright blushing colors, damp from the tropical humidity, all opening themselves toward the sun—it’s like a botanical burlesque show.