Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rosamond Wolff Purcell's Arcane Treasures

Rosamond Wolff Purcell photographs collections of dusty, forgotten objects in such a way that the subject transcends its original identity – a bat preserved in glycerine, a corroded typewriter, a pile of dog skins – to be reinterpreted as a metaphorical, emotional, aesthetically intriguing work of art. She investigates the stripping away of meaning, as well as the additional layers of meaning that arise when an object is removed from its original context and inserted into an alien environment.

"Alizarin-stained Shark"

(preserved in glycerine, on parchment, from Illuminations: A Bestiary)

Purcell has explored the basements and attics of natural history museums, celebrated the cabinet of curiosities of Peter the Great, illuminated the mouldering debris of a strange junkyard in Maine, and faced the glassy gaze of the animals mankind has driven to extinction. With the cooperation of curators of curiosities and monsters like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Mütter Museum, and in collaboration with experts like paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and natural historian Stephen Jay Gould and sleight-of-hand master and dice collector Ricky Jay, Purcell has spent her career exploring the intersection between art and science and the sometimes beautiful effects of mutation and decay.


(with bird preserved in alcohol, from Illuminations: A Bestiary)

In 1987's Illuminations: A Bestiary, Purcell wrote, "As a photographer I am attracted to zoological collections by virtue of their fragmentary state. Partially eroded or effaced surfaces appeal to me, as would an ancient piece of fresco, a piece of Egyptian linen with faint hallmarks, a piece of text eaten by termites. In these collections, ranging in time between 1650 and 1979, one can find effects parallel to the visual delights inherent in the worn surfaces of human artifacts... The creatures you see were chosen for their visual eloquence and metaphorical suggestiveness."

"Night Monkey"

(preserved in glycerine, from Illuminations: A Bestiary)

"Albino Bird of Paradise"

(from Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors)

"I am intrigued by traditional museum conceits – classification, juxtaposition of words and objects, the relationship of the collectors and curators to their collections – in short, the grey area between a rational scientific system and human idiosyncrasies. Private and institutional collectors share the same instinctive hunger – to seek, to find, to classify." (from Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors)


(Bumpy-toothed seal skull, from Illuminations: A Bestiary)

"I've heard of a man in the deep country who has collected furniture, clothes, paper, and arranged them systematically (by class of object) along the road and through a field. He visits his collection daily, checking, sorting, talking, handling every part to be certain nothing is out of place, nothing goes awry. No conscientious collection manager in a big city museum would do otherwise."
(from Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors)


(from Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things)

"Owls from the collection of a blind ornithologist"

(from Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors)

"In photographing a mastodon tooth, I chose to kneel down and look up at it set against a cotton sunscreen, because it reminded me of a mountain range. I showed the photograph to the manager of the collection saying, "a real landscape!" He replied with considerable distress, "it's a tooth." Between the scientific name and the visual experience lies the abyss: the laws of classification, artistic license versus scientific certainty, and, most treacherous, the desire to look for metaphor in territory thoroughly mapped by rational minds." (from "The Name of the Game," Art Bulletin, 6/1/95)


(mouse-tailed bat preserved in glycerine, from Illuminations: A Bestiary)

"Whatever the technical difficulties of photographing an object through glass, they become insignificant when transparent and translucent surfaces permit a veritable lexicon of illusion. Preservative liquids of various viscosities contrive to grant subjects unexpected depths, faint or dramatic reflections, absent, displaced, or exaggerated detail, and sometimes a selectively mirrored surface which allows a whole room, a window or a courtyard to cross over and present itself head-on in the same plane as the subject, expanding the sense of place and bringing relief to what might otherwise seem an obsessively myopic or clinical view of objects not traditionally considered "artistic" in nature."
(from "The Name of the Game," Art Bulletin, 6/1/95)


(preserved in glycerine, from Illuminations: A Bestiary)
"In the domains of the scientist and curator, the death of an organism is the beginning; it strips away the layer of life. Other layers of information may then vanish with each stage of dissection – the skin from the bone; the bones from the skin; color or opacity from the tissue; or fluids from the vital organs, arteries and veins. Irrelevant layers are discarded as the scientist seeks a proper vantage point for his work... What the viewer to the collections sees then is always partial, sometimes vestigial, and to the nonscientist, often mysterious." (from Illuminations: A Bestiary)

"European Moles"

(pressed skins, from Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors)

While sifting through dozens of important and venerable collections, Purcell has pondered the drive to collect and classify, often placing the collector himself under the microscope via analysis of his obsessions. "The boxes and boxes of van Heurn's somewhat macabre, perfectly pressed skins of rabbits, rats, dogs, cats, pigs and moles, coupled with his ideas about order and taxonomy, caught my attention long ago. He seemed to me to be a kind of "black hole" collector, insatiable and a bit out of control. He had to have it all." (from Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors)

"Rats in envelope"

(repurposed envelope, from Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors)

Yet during her explorations of what remains of the world's wunderkammer, Purcell was bitten by the collecting bug herself. She became fascinated by the collection of Ole Worm, a 17th-century Danish archaeologist, embryologist, natural philosopher, physician, and teacher, and eventually attempted to recreate his cabinet of curiosities as a museum exhibition. As a student of decay, Purcell has hauled tons of corroded metal and mouldering paper home from a junkyard in Maine, almost inadvertently creating her own personal museum in which to highlight the more intriguing objects she unearthed.

The images here are just a small sample from a couple of Rosamond Purcell's best-known works. Others include Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet, Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals, and Bookworm. Rosamond Purcell's latest book, Egg & Nest, just came off the presses. In his review, documentarian Errol Morris wrote, "In this collection of eggs and nests made of random bric-a-brac, cassette tape, and wire, we're invited to meditate on oology as ontology, ontology as oology, and the paradox of museums as a lifeless record of life. Rosamond Purcell has magnificently returned to her most fascinating obsession, the repurposing of life as the purpose of life."

"Alizarin-stained Fish"

(preserved in glycerine, on parchment, from Illuminations: A Bestiary)

"I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth." – Henry Miller


bioephemera said...

As usual, a phenomenal post - you really raise the bar for blogs in our area. I'm a great admirer, and I've recommended your blog to all my readers. Cheers!

Curious Art said...

I've been a Rosamond Purcell maniac ever since I came across her work in a used bookstore years ago... her photos of natural history collections are sometimes better than the real thing. (And I love the real thing.) What an amazing eye & mind!
Thanks for spreading the word!