Lynn Ozzle shuttered his studio. It was time. He would explode otherwise. The canvas and linen have been rolled up. The table saw unplugged and lumber stacked in a corner. The tubes of oil paint closed and spirits capped. The palette wiped clean. Nothing may ever be painted there again. He has gone outdoors, to turn some very special soil and plant some very special seeds.
Ozzle had been preparing for this for two decades. It all started with this recurring lucid dream in which he was Gregor Mendel, that ingenious Augustinian monk and transcendent gardener who, through his tending to plants became the founder of the science of genetics. At night, Ozzle kept finding himself peering out from Mendel’s eyes, watching himself pollinate and germinate rows and rows of sweet peas. He went to sleep early, eager to inspect their leaves, tie their tendrils, taste their fruit. It became an obsession—the principles of heredity, selective breeding, hybridity, cross-pollination, growing things…it all consumed him. Green shoots came to hold an erotic charge. He signed up for a community garden. He started composting and raising beds. He became good enough at farming and cultivation that he wanted to invent a new discipline of gardening.
His discipline of gardening would be radical and revelatory, a breakthrough in the culture part of agriculture. It would be informed by an amateur but serious scientific approach to growing things modeled after Mendel and it would have to be an extension of his painting practice because he exists primarily as a painter and that leaves its mark on every aspect of his thinking. His gardening practice would be based on studio techniques: “I paint with pollen from flower to flower. Literally. I go around with a paintbrush, palette, and glass jar.”
More than scientific, it would be para-scientific—he would investigate esoteric realms that real scientists wouldn’t dare entertain. As the years passed and Ozzle developed his gardening position, his curiosity came to fixate on the metaphysical and psychic dimensions of botanical heredity. He started asking and then acting on questions like: What kinds of immaterial energy, beyond nutrients and light, can be absorbed by plants? Can emotional or cultural energy be operative in specialized breeding and hybridization?
If the type, quality, and location of the soil has such a profound impact on the taste and nature of the grape, why wouldn’t it be possible that the history, narrative, and environment from which the soil came could also have an effect on the fruit it nourishes? To test the theory, Ozzle started collecting what is now an enormous library of specimens of very special soil to use in a series of avant-garde planting experiments. The terms for soil specialness are crucial. Ozzle collected dirt from places of salient emotional and psychic significance to him, personally. He got a cubic foot at the base of a full double rainbow. Another came from the New Mexican pilgrimage site Casa de Los Unmiertos to be tested for supposedly divine healing powers. He got many samples from the graves of heroes: Lee Lozano, Theodore Roosevelt, Marc Bolan, Stanley Kubrick. The most recent addition was from the backyard of Mitt Romney’s La Jolla mansion; Ozzle wanted to test both positive and negative energetic effects on plant development.
Lynn Ozzle, Verquiat, 2012, tomato. Courtesy of the artist
It was after collecting two hundred and thirty-six soil specimens that Ozzle finally shuttered his studio and entered the next phase of the experiment: the planting and harvesting. Ozzle has grown many varieties of plants—edible and decorative, heirloom and tropical, endangered and invented. He has crossbred new varieties of tomatoes (called Verquiats) from types grown in soil snatched from Vermeer’s childhood home and Basquiat’s grave. Ozzle has grown and harvested several generations of botanically advanced plants and he has recorded his as-yet-unpublished findings in meticulous notebooks.
Among Ozzle’s findings, spectacular as they may be, is that begonias grown in soil from the Big Pink house in Woodstock, New York are noticeably bigger and more pest resistant than they are in any other soil. Marijuana reared in dirt culled from the location of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox is reported to be somehow consistently stronger than other strains, though none produces a high quite as potent as cannabis rooted in soil from the resting place of legendary-pothead Lee Lozano, which raises a weird if anecdotal correlation between Lees and weed. Marigolds harvested from Mitt Romney soil, it should be noted, have proven to be inconsistent.
Ozzle has begun to make a very limited quantity of his experimental fruits, vegetables, and flowers available for public consumption. No whole, live plants are for sale. Ozzle will be manning a stand at the Studio City farmers market this coming Sunday. The prices are high but when you see the gargantuan Sylvia Plath sunchokes, taste the abnormally tangy Kaiser Wilhelm kumquats, or inhale the aroma from a bouquet of deep purple Duchamp lavender, it will undoubtedly be clear how worth it it is.
—Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer and Jeff Hassay
(Image on top Lynn Ozzle, Big Pink Begonias, 2012, begonias; Courtesy of the artist)