DU’S “The Un­bear­able Im­per­ma­nence of Things” re­fo­cuses 19th cen­tury nat­u­ral­ism through a con­tem­po­rary, and artis­tic, fil­ter

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

A new ex­hibit ti­tled “The Un­bear­able Im­per­ma­nence of Things” at the Univer­sity of Den­ver looks at 19th­cen­tury nat­u­ral­ism — think dated dio­ra­mas of stuffed an­i­mals — through the lens of art and finds the en­chant­ment with na­ture is go­ing strong to­day.

H umans have never quite pinned down how they ought to in­ter­act re­spon­si­bly with the nat­u­ral world around them. Should they plant trees for oxy­gen or chop them down for fire­wood? Should they take an­i­mals into their homes as pets or eat them for din­ner?

Co-ex­ist with it all or con­quer it? The nat­u­ral­ists of the 19th cen­tury turned th­ese eth­i­cal ques­tions into sci­ence, or at least a very crude ver­sion of sci­ence, ven­tur­ing into un­tamed lands and map­ping, ex­plor­ing, cap­tur­ing and cat­a­loging the veg­e­ta­tion, rocks and wildlife they en­coun­tered. Part re­searchers, part hob­by­ists, they put their then-ex­otic finds on dis­play in books, lectures and pop­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions, spark­ing a public fas­ci­na­tion with the non-hu­man en­vi­ron­ment that en­dures to­day.

Those dated dio­ra­mas of stuffed buf­falo and bighorn sheep that peo­ple love to pho­to­graph at the Den­ver Mu­seum of Na­ture and Sci­ence — they have their roots in the early nat­u­ral­ist move­ment.

The ex­hibit ti­tled “The Un­bear­able Im­per­ma­nence of Things” at the Univer­sity of Den­ver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery looks at nat­u­ral­ism to­day, and through the lens of art, and finds that the en­chant­ment with birds, fish, flora and ge­o­log­i­cal spec­i­mens is still go­ing strong among sculp­tors, pho­tog­ra­phers and in­stal­la­tion­ists of all va­ri­eties.

Though, as cu­ra­tor Libby Bar­bee demon­strates, there’s def­i­nite 21stcen­tury sen­si­bil­ity to the present-day work, which is in­formed by up­dated sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, an aware­ness of plan­e­tary vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and

cli­mate change, and some post­mod­ern myth-bust­ing.

And, cer­tainly, a bit of nos­tal­gia, which is ev­i­dent the mo­ment vis­i­tors en­ter the gallery door and en­counter Lex Thompson’s “Re/col­lect,” a site-spe­cific menagerie of ac­tual, stuffed wildlife that pays trib­ute to Colorado’s own Martha Maxwell (1831-1881), who ded­i­cated her life to doc­u­ment­ing var­i­ous species dwelling in the lo­cal ter­rain. A pi­o­neer­ing taxi­der­mist, she ven­tured into field and moun­tain, cap­tur­ing, killing and mount­ing var­i­ous things and ex­hibit­ing her finds around the coun­try.

With help from DMNS, which loaned items from its stor­age for the ex­hibit, Thompson brings a num­ber of an­i­mals to­gether into one tableaux — a pel­i­can, wolf, hawk, beaver, bad­ger, hen and other once-liv­ing things — cre­at­ing a sort of peace­able king­dom where all an­i­mals get along quite well. The scene has nat­u­ral roots, but it’s en­tirely ar­ti­fi­cial.

Un­like DMNS, which uses back­drops of moutain­scapes and grass­lands in its dio­ra­mas, Thompson places his spec­i­mens in front a green screen, a tool that dig­i­tal an­i­ma­tors use in their craft and a nod to the ma­nip­u­la­tive way artists sep­a­rate out and present things in the cur­rent age.

And be­cause this is 2019, he gives over to the re­al­i­ties of per­sonal tech­nol­ogy and adds a de­lib­er­ate selfie op­por­tu­nity, draw­ing a bright, yel­low cir­cle on the floor in front of the setup and la­bel­ing it “Photo Spot.” There’s some hu­mor to that, but also an ac­knowl­edg­ment that one of art’s high­est and best uses to­day is to serve as a back­drop to the au­to­bi­ogra­phies that so many peo­ple write on a daily ba­sis via so­cial media.

That same self-con­scious mix of play­ful­ness and irony in­forms the pho­to­graphs of Richard Barnes, whose con­tri­bu­tions to this ex­hibit cap­ture im­ages of main­te­nance and con­struc­tion crews work­ing di­rectly in­side wildlife dio­ra­mas. One photo, “Man with Buf­falo,” from 2015, shows a worker vac­u­um­ing the floor of a dio­rama while an over­sized taxi­der­mied mam­mal grazes on the fake grass un­der its nose. An­other, 2008’s “Sin­gle Un­du­late Amongst Blue Crosses,” doc­u­ments a worker napping dur­ing the in­stal­la­tion of an­other dio­rama de­pict­ing some horned crea­ture in a desert plain.

Barnes’ pho­tos break down the fourth wall of th­ese tourist at­trac­tions, and to great ef­fect. Dio­ra­mas are relics of a dif­fer­ent age, one that se­ri­ous mu­se­ums have mostly left behind in fa­vor of ex­hibit­ing real sci­ence over stuffed an­i­mals. Still, they cling to th­ese odd­i­ties; maybe be­cause they re­mind us of a time when learn­ing about the world was less com­pli­cated.

There are more se­ri­ous mo­ments in “The Un­bear­able Im­per­ma­nence of Things.” Bar­bee in­cludes a piece by Den­ver artist Me­gan Gaf­ford, which uses ura­nium (real, ac­tive ura­nium) as its core medium — and which, ac­cord­ing to gallery sig­nage, ac­tu­ally ex­poses view­ers to small doses of gamma ra­di­a­tion. Sounds scary, though it’s a very small dose, no stronger than what hu­mans en­counter ev­ery day.

But it serves as an ex­plo­ration of our mis­un­der­stand­ing of nat­u­ral el­e­ments, and un­der­scores the de­bates that sci­en­tists have over the ben­e­fits and dan­ger of ra­di­a­tion in our lives. Gaf­ford in­cludes on the wall above her piece a close-up video of the al­co­hol cloud that em­anates nat­u­rally from nu­clear ra­di­a­tion. It’s quite lovely, ac­tu­ally, just a bit of mist float­ing off a rock, so peace­ful and lulling, how could that be so dan­ger­ous?

“The Un­bear­able Im­per­ma­nence of Things” is en­tirely open-minded on the con­cept of beauty, and that’s what keeps it in­ter­est­ing. Artist John Mcenroe casts or­di­nary tree stumps and fallen branches into im­pec­ca­blyren­dered plas­tic sculp­tures. Mia Mul­vey uses 3D prin­ters to recre­ate, in char­coal and salt, sec­tions of 3,000-year-old se­quoias. Eileen Roscina Richard­son ap­plies the an­cient art of nat­u­ral tree shap­ing to fungi, us­ing light ex­po­sure to make her plants grow in zig-zag pat­terns, and then places them un­der bell jars for public in­spec­tion.

All of this work is amaz­ing to be­hold, and it strives to help us un­der­stand our in­ter­ac­tions with the nat­u­ral world, par­tic­u­larly in the West, but none of it fits neatly into tra­di­tional def­i­ni­tions of beauty.

What all of the work does have in com­mon is a still­ness, a sort of freez­ing of cru­cial mo­ments. In some way, all of th­ese artists have pushed the pause but­ton on a world that’s con­stantly in mo­tion. “The Un­bear­able Im­per­ma­nence of Things” ex­plains sci­en­tific ob­ser­va­tion — and art it­self — in terms of time. We can’t look at some­thing with­out stop­ping its mo­tion, so our eyes can fo­cus and our brains can process.

Or maybe we can. Maybe it’s pos­si­ble — even bet­ter — to un­der­stand things in their organic, dy­namic state. There’s some ridiculous­ness to the idea that we would study the way things grow and evolve by in­ter­rupt­ing the process, by con­fin­ing or killing them, es­pe­cially with the tech­nol­ogy that’s avail­able to­day.

But that’s not how hu­mans op­er­ate. For us, co-ex­ist­ing re­quires con­quer­ing and cap­tur­ing. That was true for Martha Maxwell a cen­tury and a half ago and it re­mains true for Mia Mul­vey, Me­gan Gaf­ford and Lex Thompson to­day.

Pro­vided by Vicki Myhren Gallery

Lex Thompson’s 2016 photo “Por­trait of Ma­bel Maxwell” recre­ates an im­age that nat­u­ral­ist Martha Maxwell made of her daugh­ter more than a cen­tury ago.

Wes Mag­yar, pro­vided by Vicki Myhren Gallery

Mia Mul­vey uses 3D prin­ters to recre­ate, in char­coal and salt, sec­tions of 3,000-year-old se­quoias.

Wes Mag­yar, pro­vided by Vicki Myhren Gallery

An in­stal­la­tion shot from “The Un­bear­able Im­per­ma­nence of Things.”

Ray Mark Ri­naldi, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Lex Thompson’s “Re/col­lect,” is a site-spe­cific in­su­la­tion that uses loaned spec­i­mens from eh Den­ver Mu­seum of Na­ture and Sci­ence.

Wes Mag­yar, pro­vided by Vicki Myhren Gallery

In the cen­ter, Me­gan Gaf­ford’s “Horme­sis,” which uses ura­nium as its core el­e­ment.

Wes Mag­yar, pro­vided by Vicki Myhren Gallery

Eileen Roscina Richard­son ap­plies the an­cient art of nat­u­ral tree shap­ing to fungi, us­ing light ex­po­sure to make her plants grow in zig-zag pat­terns.

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