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Majestic: Bertholet’s Ted, The Green Grasshopper.

Photo: Guusje Berthdet

The Essential Nature of Things

By Nadine Wasserman

Focus on Nature X: Natural History Illustration

New York State Museum, through Sept. 7

Given that I am personally drawn to more conceptual art, I had no intention of writing about or even visiting this exhibition. I could argue that I am a purist when it comes to fine art, but that would be a lie. I am very conscious of the arbitrary and ambiguous boundaries that create categories such as ”craft” and “outsider” art, and I generally disdain them. And quite honestly, if I have little problem defending the artistic merits of, say, Takashi Murakami’s crass commercialism, then how can I in good conscience continue to make a distinction between art and illustration? In truth, I can’t.

Illustration has played a crucial role in scientific discovery. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that Darwin could have developed his theory of natural selection without the many illustrations, notes, and specimens gathered on expedition. Even today, despite advances in photography and imaging, scientific illustration plays a vital role in recording and disseminating knowledge. This is because it often takes a human hand and eye to accentuate certain details while diminishing or editing others. In a sense, illustrators create an essentialist ideal of a plant, animal, or insect in order to preserve and record a particular species. But despite their emphasis on accuracy and utility, medical and natural-history illustrators are not merely draftsmen making diagrams, cutaways, and charts. Like most artists, they tend to betray a personal style that includes distortions, decorative effects, and even commentary. This is what makes their work compelling.

The catalogue for the exhibition explains that the Focus on Nature series has “reflected the standards, materials, and skills of the contemporary natural history illustrator community” since 1990. The materials used by the illustrators in this particular exhibition include graphite, ink, watercolor, gouache, oil, digital media, and carbon dust. The 83 artists represented come from all over the world, and each uses a different style and subject matter. Some of the images are common flora and fauna like spinach, radishes, and peacocks, while others are more exotic, like a Peckoltia fish found only in the Xingu River in South America, or a digital rendering of a Mimivirus, one of the largest viruses ever found.

There is work for every taste in this exhibition. I was personally drawn to the work that was less technical and more interpretive. Honey Possum, Dryanda by Suzannah Alexander depicts a tiny marsupial clinging to a puffy flower. The image is crowded with foliage as if to reinforce the animal’s diminutive size, and the translucency of the gouache reflects his fragile existence, having to subsist on nectar and pollen. Whereas Alexander underscores her subject’s size by depicting him within his natural environment, Guusje Bertholet’s Ted, The Green Grasshopper, is rendered gigantic against a black background absent of any detail. The bug is both menacing and beautiful and commands our respect. Brian D. Cohen’s Amazonian Umbrellabird also strikes a bold pose on a dark background. The umbrellabird is surrounded by abstracted leaves that accent his attributes: strong claws, decorative head crest, and wattle.

Patricia J. Latas’ colorful Mandarin Fish is enlarged on a black background as a response to a National Geographic report that stated the fish looked “like something drawn by a five-year-old.” Latas wanted to celebrate the complexity of a fairly common reef fish that she felt had been disrespected. Another work by Latas records her personal experience sketching a creature that is rarely sighted. Ocellated Antbird, Army Ants, Poison Arrow Frog is a color pencil drawing that depicts a page from a sketchbook of birds and ants that is lying on a bed of leaves as if dropped by its maker. In one corner of the sketch sits a tiny poison arrow frog. Latas explains that she had to sketch the bird while suffering ant bites, and after the ants finally departed she found the poison arrow frog sitting on her boot. Such is the plight of the naturalist! Similar to Latas, Tara Dalton Bensen uses an illustration of an illustration; hers is a tribute to one of the first female illustrators to gain recognition. In Common Medlar, Elizabeth Blackwell, Bensen has painted the fruit and foliage of a common medlar surrounded by pages from Blackwell’s book A Curious Herbal. Also rendered are the tools Blackwell would have used to make her images.

There are many interesting works on view, and there is the added entertainment of bird noises emanating from speakers scattered about. At the center of the exhibition is a vitrine containing examples of books that include reproductions of some of the work on display. The case underscores the fact that illustrators are not alone in their creative vision. Their work is often dictated by the needs of the project. And because the reproductions lose some of their vitality and texture, it is a real treat to be able to see the originals.

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