Joseph Scheer, Actias Luna Spring Form, Digital print, 34 x 46".
Jin Lee, Prairie: Four Seasons, digital color photograph, 30 x 25".
Matilda Essig, Blue Grama, color photograph, 46 x 34“.
Tilly Woodward, Louisiana Water Thrush x 4/Family Tools, oil on panel, 11 x 8.5".
Carl Kurtz, Sedge Wren, color photograph, 18 x 12".
Bucksbaum Center for the Arts
Sixth Avenue and Park Street
Below the Surface,
a 21st Century Look
at the Prairie
June 12-September 6, 2009
By LESLEY WRIGHT
On the surface, this is a simple exhibition of images of Midwestern prairie plants, birds, insects, and environments. Sparked by a request from Grinnell College President Russell K. Osgood to create an exhibition "featuring Iowa and the prairie," I have collected works by artists from across the country who represent the flora and fauna of our region. All of the species pictured in this exhibition can be found in and around Iowa, and the exhibition as a whole suggests a natural history display. Overall, I have favored the descriptive over the expressive, though the exhibition includes examples of both styles.
As I curated the exhibition, I found myself drawn to artists whose work skirted the line between art and natural history illustration. For scientists, drawing specimens has long been a means of study, of knowledge acquisition, and of pleasure. A number of artists also use a descriptive scientific vocabulary as the basis for their art. In their comingling of art and science, they go below the surface of either field in order to explore how the shaping of visual knowledge affects how we see the world around us.
In this exhibition, about half the artists use photography and the others use the older tools of drawing, painting and printmaking. Each medium has its strengths and limitations. In a recent article about field guides for birds, the author notes, "Paintings still capture best a bird's essence. Call it what you will — a distillation, impressionism, synthesis. [Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America], with its revolutionary manipulation of photographs, is an attempt to achieve what paintings do so well." (Henry Armistead, 30 Years of Changes: The Ever-Changing Field Guide, Bird Watcher's Digest, March/April 2009, 9. The field guide he refers to is Kenn Kaufman, Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005]) For at least some naturalists, who still rely on images as an aid in discovery and identification, the veracity of a photograph fails to capture everything that can be encompassed in an artist's rendering. For others, nothing is as immediate as a photograph of a living specimen.
The artists in Below the Surface reflect the history of naturalist illustration. 18th and 19th-century naturalists had to identify their subjects, draw them from life, and possibly even dissect them to learn more about the species in question. That level of close observation is evident in this exhibition. As science became more specialized, the task of illustrating specimens split off from the act of scientific discovery, and artists and scientists had to work took on different roles. Illustration also became, in some hands, far more artistic. John James Audubon may still claim the position as the most renowned artist naturalist in the United States, and some artists in this exhibition follow his more personal and expressive style. (For a thorough exploration of the history of natural history illustration, see: Ann Shelby Blum, Picturing Nature: American Nineteenth-Century Zoological Illustration [Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993].)
For over 300 years, field study and work with specimens in museum collections have been the starting point for artist naturalists. Priscilla Steele's prints in this exhibition, such as Not Your Standard Field Guide-Cup Plant, recreate the layers of images, observations, and notes captured in research notebooks. Direct observation from nature is fundamental to understanding a particular species and its relationship to the world around it, but the elements must be noted quickly and Steele captures the spontaneity of onsite sketching in the more painstaking process of etching. Peggy Macnamara concentrates on the phenomenal resources of the study collections at the Field Museum in Chicago. She selects specimens from the museum's drawers and cases--collected for scientific study over decades--and renders them in larger than life watercolors. A page like Long Horned Beatles, created for her book Illinois Insects and Spiders, (Peggy Macnamara, Illinois Insects and Spiders [Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press in association with The Field Museum, 2005].) falls squarely in the tradition of natural history texts where on e can study the comparative sizes, physical characteristics, and close-up details of a number of species. Macnamara has been working with the collection at the Field Museum for over 30 years and continues to mine the museum's riches in her work.
The study of specimens persists in the work of Matilda Essig and Joseph Scheer. All of the moths in Scheer's oversize digital images can be found in our region, but we rarely see them as they are small or nocturnal. Scheer "pins" the moths to the wall, turning the gallery into a huge specimen box and placing the viewer at a very different relationship with each insect than we would have in real life. In these images, the moths are both open to study and to wonder; they are scientific examples and works of nature's art. Matilda Essig takes a similar approach to native grass species. Though she works in Arizona, several of the grasses she has photographed are also found in Iowa prairies. By isolating the grass from its environment, she borrows from the tradition of the herbarium, (An herbarium is a repository of plant specimens. Plants are collected in the field, pressed, mounted on paper, identified, and catalogued. They can then be retrieved for study, allowing scientists to compare species, track the history of its dispersal or disappearance, and examine changes over time, while also featuring the startling abstract beauty of grasses stalks, leaves, and seed heads.
The choice to illustrate a species in isolation or in a natural setting raises a debate as old as natural history. In the 18th century, Linnaes and Buffon, fathers of modern natural history, advocated for differing descriptive presentations. Linnaes favored taxonomy and a structural rendering of a specimen isolated on the page. Buffon preferred to see the specimen within a more holistic natural system, where behavior and setting mattered as much as physical characteristics to understand a species (Ann Shelby Blum, Picturing Nature: American Nineteenth-Century Zoological Illustration [Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993, pp. 13-15). In a sense, this exhibition continues the debate. Carl Kurtz takes his camera out of the studio and into the field. Trained as a fish and wildlife biologist, Kurtz works as a naturalist and prairie reconstructionist. While in the field, he photographs prairie plants and birds within their environment, featuring the inextricable links between species in an image like Sedge Wren Singing on a Compass Plant.
Peggy Macnamara straddles the line with her work. In addition to her study of lifeless museum collections, she also creates dense environmental studies of birds, plants and insects. As in nature, it can be difficult to untangle the density of visual information. It is only when we are able to get very close that we can differentiate one species from another. Such clarity emerges in Kurtz's studies of plants and in the seasonal essay on the prairie by Illinois artist Jin Lee. Lee focuses her attention at plant level. In her photographs we are among the prairie plants and the sky is a distant neutral space high above. Through her lens we see the complex web of healthy prairie and we note the ebb and flow of different species as the year rolls along.
The photographs of John Spence and the drawings by Barbara Fedeler pull us back from the intense looking at specific plants, birds and insects and take in the great sweep of the Midwestern landscape. Like Lee, Spence has a fascination with the procession of the seasons but he is more focused on the weather and the interplay of sky and land. His photographs, like Fedeler's drawings, are a sum of many parts and set a stage or context for the observations of the other artists. Fedeler's landscapes, meticulously drawn in charcoal, render the textural density of an Iowa landscape with so many grasses, forbs, and woody plants growing together that they merge into undifferentiated aggregates of prairie and woodland.
I mentioned John James Audubon earlier. In his day, Audubon challenged the descriptive men of science by creating intense images of birds that expressed the struggle for survival. He thought of his works as paintings first, and then as natural history, and he captured the public imagination. Certainly painter Justin Gibbens falls into the same tradition. He takes the naturalist vocabulary into his own hands and imagines what nature could be. Birds in his paintings dance and duel in a remarkable avian ballet. They are also embellished by the artist with fanciful appendages-unicorn horns, tendrils, and protrusions never seen in nature. Iowa artist Delores De Wilde Bina likewise adapts real insects to her own personal vocabulary. Her butterflies could almost be real, but they are richer than life through her creativity.
In a state as intensely farmed as Iowa, it is impossible to fully separate the impacts of centuries of human habitation from the nature that surrounds us. David Ottensteins's landscapes are domesticated. While we may think of his corn and bean fields as nature, they represent the Jeffersonian grid laid down upon the plains, replacing native prairie with extraordinary farm fields. For many Iowans, these fields are nature for they lie beyond the farmyard or town and sweep away to the horizon. They are as close as many people ever get to wildness.
Tilly Woodward is a naturalist of the domestic, as is Marguerite Perret. Woodward brings her meticulous eye to bear on the minor miracles of nature we find in our yards-birds' nests, garden flowers, and tiny bird bodies felled by a window, all cradled in our hands when we pause to marvel at the beauty on our doorstep. While Woodward invokes the finely honed descriptive vocabulary of natural history, Perret adopts the composition of the herbarium specimen. In her New World Herbarium series, she photographs actual 19th-century herbarium pages and then collages in images of barbed wire, lips, lipsticks, and other evidence of the culture we have planted within the prairie. She turns the naturalist eye back on ourselves.
Below the Surface looks a great deal like science and owes a deep debt to scientific study, but in the end, it is an art exhibition. The art in this exhibition presents remarkable images of the plants and creatures that inhabit our natural places, but it also uncovers the very human ways we have learned to see nature. As Blum writes, "It may even be true that no single factor has influenced scientific illustration as much as the convention of rectangular paper" (Ann Shelby Blum, Picturing Nature: American Nineteenth-Century Zoological Illustration [Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993, p. 3). We reduce a world of endless space and complexity to what we can see in two-dimensions, with corners. Natural history, when you go below the surface, can be very unnatural indeed.
Lesley Wright is Director of Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College.