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Common Toad Flax is one of a series of etchings in Landy’s portfolio Nourishment. The portfolio was published by Paragon Press in an edition of thirty-seven plus six artist’s proofs; the set owned by Tate is number nine in the series. These prints were first exhibited at Maureen Paley Interim Art, London between December 2002 and January 2003 alongside several related etchings produced in an edition of six which were sold individually.
The etchings are all meticulous, life-sized studies of individual weeds the artist found growing in the street. Landy has described why he was drawn to these ‘street flowers’. He has said, ‘they are marvellous, optimistic things that you find in inner London ... They occupy an urban landscape which is very hostile and they have to be adaptable and find little bits of soil to prosper’ (quoted in Buck). Weeds are hardy, thriving in often inhospitable conditions with very little soil, water or direct sunlight. They grow between paving stones or on waste ground in the city, tenaciously asserting themselves despite being overlooked by the majority of passers-by. Landy collected a number of these plants and took them back to his studio where he potted and tended them, making studies of their structures including detailed renderings of roots, leaves and flowers.
Landy is best known for large-scale installations that critique the mechanisms of capitalism and consumerism. Scrapheap Services, 1995 (Tate T07221) is a fictional service company that disposes of the undesirable elements of society, represented by tiny cut-out figures of people made from rubbish. In 2001 Landy staged Break Down, a major project in which he and a team of operatives systematically catalogued, then dismantled and destroyed all of the artist’s 7,227 possessions. Break Down was a massive project that took over three years to realise and after its completion Landy did not begin a new body of work immediately. Landy actually began making images of weeds in the late 1990s but these early drawings were destroyed during Break Down. He returned to this theme in late 2001 and the etchings in the Nourishment portfolio were made between March and October 2002.
Critics have interpreted the etchings as a quiet, low-key repost to Break Down, the calm after the storm. However, Nourishment shares with Landy’s earlier work an attentive focus and a concern with showing the marginalised and overlooked. As Julian Stallabrass has pointed out, ‘the depicted weeds act metaphorically, standing in for the urban underclass – similarly mobile, mongrel and diasporic – and also the subject of prolonged neglect and spasmodic measures of control, or weeding’ (Stallabrass). The detail of the works recalls botanical illustration, particularly the direct imprints of plants known as nature prints made in the nineteenth century before the advent of photography. (For further information on nature prints, see Deepening with Clouding Over, 1984-6 (Tate T05212-3 and P77235-9) by Günter Brus (born 1938) and Arnulf Rainer (born 1929).) Landy includes the imperfections of each specimen. The simple beauty of the etchings which dignify the most commonplace of plants also made these works appealing to collectors. The portfolio’s title alludes to the practical benefit of its profitability: proceeds from the sale of these etchings helped Landy and his backers recoup some of the costs of staging Break Down.
This print depicts a common toad flax or Linaria vulgaris. Long flat leaves extend from each of the two main branches of the plant. The taller stem on the left is capped with small blooms resembling snapdragons. The roots extend in long dark tendrils uncoiling like pulled threads. The weed’s widespread nature is alluded to in its familiar name. Landy’s detailed rendering gives the plant a singularity that transcends this commonness, making it a very individual, idiosyncratic specimen. In this respect, the etching resembles a realist portrait rather than an idealised botanical study.
Heidi Reitmayer, ‘Hello Weed’, Tate: International Arts and Culture, no.3, January/February 2003, pp.60-8.
Louisa Buck, ‘Champion of the urban weed’, The Art Newspaper, December 2002.
Julian Stallabrass, ‘An artist after Break Down’, Evening Standard, 17 December 2002, www.thisislondon.com/entertainment/art/articles/2519299?source=Evening Standard.