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Unnatural nature: Eckhard Etzold’s Fishes.

Species Pieces

By Nadine Wasserman Natural Selection

Albany International Airport Gallery, through April 15


It’s puzzling that almost 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, human evolution is still under debate. It is fitting then that Natural Selection at the Albany International Airport Gallery should place an early edition of the book near the entrance of the exhibition. The Airport Gallery organizes consistently good exhibitions, and as an added attraction, the space is great for watching travelers come and go and planes taking off and landing.

This exhibition effectively combines the work of five contemporary artists and one artist collective with artifacts, specimens, and oddities selected from the permanent collection of the Pember Library and Museum of Natural History in Granville, N.Y. The overall effect is a version of the cabinets of curiosities that gained popularity beginning in the 15th century so that people of means—such as merchants, doctors, artists, clergy, and scientists—could both entertain their guests and use the artifacts for personal study. These wunderkammer, as they were often called, are considered to be the precursors to modern-day museums and were inspired by great curiosity and interest in both the natural world and human culture. The exhibition successfully reinforces the notion that art and science are not so different in that they both require observation, imagination and creativity.

The contemporary artwork is distributed throughout the exhibition as a complement to the Pember Museum collection. The Pember Museum was established in 1909 by Franklin T. Pember and his wife Ellen Wood Pember. Pember was both an entrepreneur and a naturalist who from a young age collected birds, mammals, eggs, shells, insects, plants, rocks and minerals. These meticulously collected, identified, recorded and preserved objects later become the basis for his museum, which now holds approximately 10,000 items. By pairing these artifacts with the work of contemporary artists, the exhibition enhances the meaning of both the artwork and the objects. The artists consider the natural world and our relationship to it. The exhibition ultimately makes us aware that in a contemporary context, most of us are removed from our natural environment. In general, our only interactions with our fellow creatures are in museums, zoos, or aquariums, or on television and film.

Both Eckhard Etzold and Eric Slayton use the site of the museum to create their work. Etzold begins by photographing the preserved animals on display in glass vitrines of natural-history museums. He then projects the photograph onto canvas, linen or wood, and paints the image using layers of acrylic wash. The effect is not to reproduce a realistic portrait but rather to make the viewer aware of the visual play between the glass, the surroundings, and the animals within. The glass reflects and obscures. It creates a disjuncture whereby the viewer becomes aware of the “unnatural” quality of the museum environment. Similarly, Slayton uses a toy camera to photograph museum dioramas. The images at first seem to capture animals in their natural habitat, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that the animals are posed against painted backgrounds meant to look like Africa, Antarctica, or the Andes. The images are fuzzy around the edges, which underscores the artificiality of the scene. In museum tableaux the animals stand motionless, suspended in a fabricated moment.

While Etzold and Slayton depict the fauna on display in museums, Laura Moriarty shapes her encaustic work to resemble geologic specimens that might be found on display or in museum storage. However, these particular objects could have been collected on a trip to another planet. Their colors are funky and wild. Their shapes are familiar but strange. Moriarty pushes the boundaries of her medium: She compresses it, rolls it, scrapes, cuts, and forms it into organic shapes that resemble lava flows, corral reefs, geodes, fossils, and bones. Some are flat and smooth, others are lumpy or pockmarked, and some bear the evidence of their own making. In one piece, she has boxed and numbered the shapes as if for storage and study. Leslie Parks also uses the visual language of museum cataloguing and scientific research. Her large-scale paintings display butterflies, moths, and beetles lined up in neat categorical rows. But instead of using entomological categories, she uses her own method of aesthetic codification. In one painting she sorts by iridescence, shape, and pattern, in the other she sticks a small green beetle in among similarly toned moths as if in protest of scientific categorizations. The insects are all magnified and presented in neat rows on a white background as if ready for intense scrutiny.

As a backdrop to the assortment of birds, animals, reptiles, shells, eggs, minerals, plants, and cultural artifacts on display, the artists’ collective the Playful Maidens of Spray have created a temporary wall installation based on a Victorian design. The stenciled pattern was hand cut and incorporates images of birds, plants, and insects. In addition, the artists (Dwell, Mr Prvrt, and Unit) stenciled an enlarged image of a vulture onto one wall to act as a sentinel who watches over the exhibition and the travelers one level below. This work enlivens the space, as do the videos of Sam Easterson, who mounts lightweight video cameras on a variety of animals in order to capture their perspectives (and is the only artist in the exhibition to incorporate the actions of live animals). Here, three video monitors literally give the viewer a bird’s-eye view as the “bird cams” view the world as a turkey, a duck, a baby chick, a pheasant, a falcon, and a partridge see it. These images afford us glimpses of the landscape from above and from the ground as the birds go about their business. The footage is both disorienting and comforting as the viewer sees the world anew through the eyes of a fellow creature, and is a great juxtaposition to the dead animals that surround the viewer. The entire exhibition reminds us that we share a truly wondrous planet with creatures each more curious than the next.


-no peripheral vision this week-


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