nature: Eckhard Etzold’s Fishes.
By Nadine Wasserman Natural Selection
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
peripheral vision this week-