Sometime around 1970, feminist historians began to make all sorts of discoveries about the primacy of artistic and scientific discoveries during what has been called the Enlightenment. Among these was the realization that, just as artists often perform the difficult early stages of gentrification of urban areas, only to be forced out when they’ve made a neighborhood attractive to professionals, so do women artists and scientists often pursue research into areas thought too trivial for pursuit by men. I was reminded of this by the recent publication of A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian. Artist and Scientist, a study of the woman who in 1699 began the studies that would lead to one of the first natural history texts on the New World (a century before Alexander Humboldt).
At about the same time as women were discovering this part of their history, the art world was shaken by a revaluation of the importance of craft in the totality of art making. Materials of all sorts were explored as sources for aesthetic expression in their own rights, and it was often said that thereafter there would be no distinction between art and craft. Looking back on these two contemporary movements, one might wonder today if there was a stronger connection between them than was visible at the time. The works of three artists currently appearing at Finch Lane suggest not only that it’s true but that the working out of the connection remains a viable approach today.
Virginia Catherall might have referred to her textiles as an abstract form of natural history, but her choice instead to style them Wearable Landscapes makes of them something arguably more intriguing. Biology textbooks only too often are illustrated with microscope slides of tissue samples, pie charts, and equations. To look at birds, shrubs, trees, seeds, water, mineral deposits, and the sky as fragments of the environment is what science already does. What Catherall does is to try to knit or weave together the look and feel of these things, while still living, with their locales: instead of breaking them down, she moves them up the chain of being: instead of specimens, she envisions landscapes. Sometimes the result is literal: but for being enlarged, “Aspen Leaf,” an orange, Merino wool knitting, recalls its subject. Others are more abstract: a pair of socks named “Speleothems,” after a kind of secondary mineral found in caves, suggests transformation: whether chemical, functional, or sartorial being a question unhelpful to ask. Anyone who ever dropped a pebble into a still pond and couldn’t stop contemplating the spreading consequences might have difficulty giving up the cape Catherall calls “Dropping a Stone in Stella Lake.”
In The Summons Has Reached Us, wren ross shows she knows how to see a phenomenon for its visual poetry instead of its purpose. It’s like the difference between eating for the pleasure of the food, its aromas, flavors, and textures, rather than because it’s nourishing, healthy, and harmless. One may well wonder about the sources of her dense collections of irresistible flotsam and evocative . . . no, not jetsam, which is trash thrown overboard by sailors, but treasures belonging to whomever they can captivate. Whether pinned to the wall as she found them, or augmented by painting or screen printing, her collections, whether looked at as unrelated, in fact, as found, or connected by the mystery of fate, eventually begin to work their siren call. I was reminded of Queequeg, the tattooed, heathen harpooner in Moby Dick, tossing his omen bones obsessively as his inescapable fate approached. Here winged trees, a shaving brush, a glove passed through an ox yoke, and dancers with heads wrapped to resemble onions share space with other cultural memories that can neither be properly recalled nor entirely forgotten.
In her pursuit of New World caterpillars, Maria Sibylla Merian was accompanied by her daughter. But 350 years later, she may have another descendent in Vanessa Romo, whose The Practice of Standing Stillcombines found and gathered objects, including flora and fauna, and porcelain gems sculpted to complement them. Some are evocative of nature: almost nostalgic, but only so long as you don’t think too much about them. In “Imago,” porcelain butterflies can draw the viewer in so close that their perch, a dried thistle hung upside down, escapes notice. If this juxtaposition of life and death seems almost natural, it is—just like the resemblance between the beautiful butterfly’s wings and its wormlike body. In “The Lepidopterist,” a traveler’s case carries the subject scientist’s tools, which include not only his sense organs,but also the pins he will use to mount his specimens. Anyone who has ever studied a monarch caterpillar closely, or dreamed of meeting insects one’s own size, will appreciate the weird combination of extreme beauty and unsettling structure found in “Serpentes and Nightshade Cycles.” The insect world, by far the largest and most successful realm of life on Earth, has much to offer that can stimulate thought. But we should not expect to find it familiar or reassuring.
Wearable Landscapes, The Summons Has Reached Us and The Practice of Standing Still, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through August 3. Gallery Stroll Reception, Friday, July 20, 6-9 pm.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.