Before museums, knowledge of the world beyond our immediate reach could be found in cabinets of curiosities – rooms that literally housed collections of everything under the sun, from natural history and ethnographic artifacts to archeological fragments and antiques. These early attempts to collect and categorize, which began during the Renaissance and remained the province of elites for some time to come, were designed to elucidate and impress. That such practices became a common activity, engaged in by legions of collectors everywhere, can be adduced by the widely variegated impact they had on 20th century art.
Wondrous Strange: a 21st Century Cabinet of Curiosities pays homage to these traditions. It contains all the things you would expect (boxes and bottles of artist-scavenged curios), but it also pulls in things not generally seen in this realm, such as painting, ceramic sculpture and tapestry. In all, 21 artists of disparate persuasions are represented in this sprawling, category-defying show. Most express, in some elegiac fashion, the human impulse to excavate and order.
Chief amongst the excavators is Oakland-based photographer Katherine Westerhout. Her color-drenched images of abandoned and decaying buildings begin as documentation but quickly slip into a more rarified zone, as demonstrated in Mishkan Yisroel Synagogue (Christian Altar), Detroit. In the exquisite light that permeates her forgotten buildings, we see not only the details of their decrepitude — we almost smell the rotting timbers, the humid air and the pools of rain water that collect through broken ceilings. The experience of looking at these pictures borders on synesthesia, the phenomenon by which information from one sensory mechanism triggers or co-mingles with another. Sharon Beals’ natural history photos also, on occasion, push past genre-imposed bounds. Nest with Soft Leaves, for example, with its swirling detritus, might be taken for a microscopic shot of molecular activity. Donald Farnsworth’s 13-foot-long, trompe l’oeil tapestry, Antiquarian Library, performs a similar feat through illusionism. From across the room it achieves the desired impact; up close it dissolves into abstraction. Look closely at how this mash-up of digital photos is translated by a computer-controlled machine and you see an incomprehensibly dense thicket of woven fabric. The effect is strangely bifurcated, like what happens when you view Chuck Close’s painted portraits at varying distances. What’s significant about this visual bait-and-switch is how it elicits nostalgia without actually permitting it. Steven Allen’s ceramic set pieces echo that approach, employing with less persuasive deception, the clay-based verisimilitude perfected by Richard Shaw and Marilyn Levine.
George Pfau’s drawing on canvas, Represented In-Flus Bodies, Cyborg Architecture, Geographic Enclosures, tickles the optical nerve, too. It reads like a dizzying treasure map, with layers of lines and skeletal shapes that appear to have arrived through some combination of stenciling and photolithography. Embedded into the picture at various depths, these forms, which are obscured with hand-painted gestural marks, trace an archeological journey that has no beginning or end.
sharon beals says
David, Thank you for the mention in this article. It was nice to have one the early images of the nest series recognized. Most of the nests in this series were photographed for a book, and are specimens from science collections. The early images were found nests that I saw as the artform that they are, and I merely borrowed the birds handiwork. Soon after making these images, when I had decided to do a book, I learned that nest collecting was illegal (a violation of the endangered species act) so I needed to work in bonafide science collections to complete the project. As an artist concerned with environmental issues and habitat protection, the large prints in this series were meant to lure a non-birdering audience, with the hope that they would want to learn more about the birds that built them and their conservation issues. A few of the early found nests were donated to The California Academy of Sciences. The others are returned to their finders, and hopefully to the wild. But the photographs made from them, while not crowd pleasers, are some of my favorites. It felt good to have this vision affirmed.