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On the Cusp of Science and Art


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Rosamond Wolff Purcell

at the Field Museum of Natural History


Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig, and Jane Calvin

at Catherine Edelman Gallery

Dead animals are pretty neat. In each of her two current exhibitions, one at the Field Museum and the other at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Rosamond Wolff Purcell is showing two similar large color prints, both called A Case of Birds. They are just that. Each shows a shallow wooden box in which is arranged a panoply of bird life from birth to death: eggs, fledglings, adult birds, bits of nests and feathers and bone, gathered by naturalists or collectors and brought to the light of day by Purcell's ingenuity. The colors of the dye-transfer prints are varied and luminous, the details sharp; you can look at these prints for a long time and always pick out new bits of natural detritus. But the chaos of the pictures, the way those bits are spread all over in a seemingly random manner, raises a question central to Purcell's work: how do we organize the natural world, order wild and teeming nature?

Purcell addresses that issue in Illuminations: A Bestiary, which is both a book and an exhibit of her photographs of the dead and mounted animal specimens that collect in the back rooms of natural history museums. The photos are accompanied by an introduction and short texts written by the renowned natural history writer Stephen Jay Gould.

Medieval bestiaries were collections of descriptions of or tales about animals that imposed order on the natural world. Animals were ranked according to human qualities--horses were worthy, eagles noble, owls wise, wolves evil--in a system that reflected human values more than the actual natures of the animals. Today naturalists recognize the folly of assigning moral values to animals. When Purcell raises questions of morality in her bestiary, they are questions about our morality. So, although we've abandoned those medieval rankings, what's being described is still less the natural world than our way of looking at it.

One of Purcell's most arresting images is of a squirrel monkey--it's been treated with chemicals that preserve its vascular system while the rest of the animal has been dissolved--using an experimental technique as morbidly fascinating as the photograph Itself. The animal, nestled in cotton to preserve its rather tenuous form, has some bony structure remaining, so we see first the open eye sockets, the gaping mouth. It looks like a human mummy unearthed on some high Andean snowfield. Eerier still, at a second look, are the blue veins th at now delineate the outlines of the body: in conjunction with the screaming mouth, they look like a haze of ionizing radiation at the moment of a nuclear blast. There's no way to look at the natural world without human associations.

That's what makes Purcell's photos of monkeys her most poignant--they are the most human-looking of her specimens. Her night monkey, a reddish fetus whose big dark eyes seem to be open and shockingly alive, looks dismayed by his cramped fate in a jar of embalming fluid. A pair of sakis with fierce claws and long teeth and alarmingly ruffled fur remain impotent, glass-eyed.

Purcell and Gould followed the cue of some of the medieval bestiaries by arranging their collection in alphabetical order, thus avoiding the question of how to rank the animals. What we get instead is a celebration of diversity, from Albatross to Zozymus, a Japanese crab. Included are some very strange animals indeed, like the anglerfish: it dangles an extended bit of one of its fins in front of its own mouth, thus luring hungry smaller fish into gobbling range. The alcohol that preserves the fish turns it a ghostly white. Or the Xenophora, or "strange bearer," a sea animal with a white shell that cements other shells or rocks to its exterior at regular intervals as camouflage. With its regularly irregular appearance, it's a synecdoche for the exhibit itself. Given wonders like these, it wouldn't be a surprise to find a manticore or griffin or some other fabulous animal here. In this atmosphere, I'd believe Purcell if she said that's what an animal was.

Purcell photographs these specimens with a genius for context: an owl's skeleton sits atop a decayed book; the regularity of a zebra's spine echoes the stripes in the animal's pelt. Her photographs occupy the cusp between science and art that's visited all too infrequently; they're a reminder that natural history is most fascinating when it becomes just a little unquantifiable. The really interesting animals nowadays, after all, are bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.

The Field Museum exhibit includes most of the photos from the Illuminations book as well as several photos from a new collaboration between Purcell and Gould. At the Edelman Gallery, in addition to a dozen or so Purcell photos are about ten photos by Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig, a New York team who specialize in platinum/palladium images of animals, human fetuses, and human skeletons, many of the latter grotesquely deformed. The platinum/palladium process involves handpainting an emulsion onto rag paper, then making a contact print from a large negative. Because the emulsion is applied by hand, and the exposure is so variable, each print is different; the dark background achieves an almost lithographic look, with a rich range of tones.

A sample Akin/Ludwig portrait: there are three standing skeletons of children against a dark background. On the left are Siamese twins, joined at the ribs and head but with separate necks and bodies below the rib cage. On the right is a petite skeleton with good posture, skull high and grinning. In the middle is a somewhat larger skeleton, with a comparatively massive skull, looking at the ground like a chastened older brother.

Now I think even the most squeamish must find this sort of thing grimly fascinating. What would it have been like to be a Siamese twin, horribly deformed? What happened to the others, who also died at a young age? What about the child's skeleton in another print, the one with the huge head? Do we see a certain humor in these photos only because the skeletons are always grinning? Again, it's hard to have an unemotional reaction to these photos.

Akin and Ludwig also photograph dead animals. In one of their more humorous photos, two chickens are nailed to a wall, their feathers singed. One of the chickens, eyes open, has legs and wings that jut out as if it were dancing with its unimpressed partner. You look at such a photo and smile and shudder at the same time. Because they're not preserved like Purcell's subjects, Akin and Ludwig's animals look really dead, with the forces of decay at work.

Chicago photographer Jane Calvin's images are largely two-dimensional, consisting--like Purcell's bird boxes--of natural materials: dead fish, flowers, bits of leaves, all manner of tufted and diaphanous organic fragments. Mixed in, like so many drifted autumn leaves, are pieces of humanity: here a photograph of a whole face, there just a toothy grin. She photographs this stuff against an indefinite background of sunset colors; when she mounts the resulting transparency atop a light box, the colors become luminous. The effect is ornamental, decorative, nice to look at. But for me it doesn't have nearly the same emotional resonance as a picture of a solitary dead monkey.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery.

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