Carnegie Museum of Art, Forum Gallery: Natural History, July 28, 2012–October 14, 2012

Carnegie Museum of Art Presents Natural History

Premiering at Carnegie Museum of Art in the Forum Gallery is Natural History,a lighthearted exploration of the artist’s relationship with nature and a chance for the museum to showcase works from its permanent collection in a new light. Beyond its nature as a curatorial challenge, Natural History hints at a juxtaposition of the roles and methodologies of the Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History in its promotional materials. The exhibition, small compared to the recently ended Impressionism in a New Light, relies on outward playfulness to draw viewers in. Nowhere is this more apparent than immediately in front of the entrance to the Forum Gallery, where a table full of crayon drawings beckons visitors to record their own reactions to works in the show upon their exit.

The symmetric layout of the exhibition proper is anchored by Valeska Soares’sHorizontes, a set of wooden boxes whose covers depicting pastoral vistas are aligned to form a horizon taking up the entire back wall of the gallery. The symmetry provides a visual sense of consistency amongst the exhibition’s many formally disparate, if thematically consistent, works. Interestingly, two artworks in the middle of the room break this symmetry vertically – Rachel Harrison’s Utopia, a mixed media sculpture of imposing stature, and the video works Cat and Dogs by Fischli and Weiss. The latter’s television displays are cleverly set on the floor, giving them a profile matching their subject animals.

Despite the quality and well-considered placement of the work on display, I couldn’t help feeling a bit unfulfilled. The exploration of the relationship between the two Carnegie Museums, though mentioned, is never a point of focus. Ironically, Natural History’s weakness is that it did not take its own impish suggestions seriously.

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Natural History Exhibit

The Natural History Exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art decidedly took its name from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a museum that exhibits various subjects such as mammals, dinosaurs, botany, and geology. And much like the museum itself, this exhibit’s goal is to capture not natural objects, not natural studies, but instead a history of the nature. In the exhibit’s case, it showcases a variety of artwork  pertaining to the subject of nature, or works which contain natural elements as a main point.

Coming from California myself, I was drawn to the large amount of work coming from the west coast. La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre by Edward Ruscha presented an image of street names laid out in a grid over a nonspecific mountain. Llyn Foulkes’ Les Beaux featured a typical Southern California desert of stacked stones and stalactites; two manmade circular holes appear at the top of the image making this image feel even more two dimensional, as if it belonged on the backdrop of a Hollywood movie. As I approached the large, altered image, Florian Maier-Aichen’s Untitled, it was easy to recognize the Malibu coastline. Maier-Aichen’s process of taking a beautiful natural image, such as this aerial coastal view of the Pacific Coast Highway as it carves its way along the rocky shore and digitally manipulating it by giving it an overwhelming red tint, it’s hard to tell what else in this serene image could have been changed, and what is actually real.

While many other pieces also contributed to the entirety of natural history, these pieces to me with the combined geographic focus created a unique story of California’s interesting dualities: a land of innovators and outdoorsmen, hippies and Hollywood-types. Overall, these pieces made me feel at home.

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A Review of Natural History

This small exhibition located in the Carnegie Museum of Art, a show from the permanent collection organized by Dan Byers, provides a relatively straightforward experience of what is to be considered ‘natural history.’ While a topic like ‘Natural History’ might encourage a broad range of historical and controversial references inherent in documentation or museum etiquette, the exhibition tends to stick to the more concrete version of “nature” by including works that make reference to those things you might find on a jaunt through the woods in your back yard, mixed in with the landscapes of beach vacations. While deeper narrative might be created through knowledge of specific artists and their work, the overarching theme seems to be simply the presence of ‘nature,’ in a broad sense. As a Carnegie Museum visitor, I found it hard to ignore the pieces that have been used in more elaborate shows.  The Paul Tech painting, when included in his retrospective a few years ago sat amongst the more well-known Tech works, the pink and blue dinosaur landscape here sat smugly above one of Vija Celmin’s intricate drawings.

The exhibit includes interactivity, games, and coloring. Near each placard is a stack of post-it notes exhibiting printed images of the artwork they are hung next to.  Outside the entrance to the exhibit, a museum employee in a blue tank top and sneakers joyously encourages children to collect these sticky-notes, and curate a narrative on provided pieces of paper which ask the participant in brightly colored letters to “use colored pencils to extend the image past the picture plane…” The exhibition provides a pleasant display of works that work well together in a simplistic way. While more exploration of the implications of the title might have provided a more thought provoking show, this provided a family-friendly experience.

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“Natural History”

“Natural History” purports to explore the advance of time on a large scale, and in doing so presents mankind as a suitably small figure. Florian Maier-Aichen’sUntitled showcases a California shoreline in which a roadway seems to disappear into the natural landscape. John Divola’s many pieces all feature the evidence of an isolated human presence amongst domineering landscapes, while Peter Doig’sDriftwood, too, portrays a couple surrounded on all sides by the near-overwhelming expanse of nature. These pieces, as with many others in the exhibit, reiterate again and again the relative smallness of mankind. However, beyond the true and needed reminder of humanity’s insignificance when examined within the context of the Earth’s history as a whole, there is little effort to expand upon this insight. Is it really necessary to have some fifteen or twenty pieces, all similarly themed, to engage this one dilemma?

Also, paradoxically, in an exhibit that claims to explore history, the viewer never actually experiences any sense of progression. Indeed, it is almost as if all sense of change has been purposefully nullified, leaving one with the impression that all the pieces exist in the same amorphous space. Again, as with the small scale of humans, the overall rationale behind this choice remains stubbornly elusive. Is it a commentary on the fact that, observed from a great enough distance, any change to a system becomes unnoticeable? Or is it a simple rumination on the futility of all of human endeavors? The exhibit makes no effort to explore these intriguing questions with anything more than a superficial probing. This lack of a critical examination may be due to how exhaustively the curators establish the insignificance of mankind in the face of natural forces. In any case, the pieces add up to little more than the sum of their individual parts.

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Rewriting Natural History, Critique of Natural History at Carnegie Museum of Art

Visitors entering the Natural History exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art are first struck by the name of the exhibit itself.  A ‘coy’ reference to CMA’s sister museum, The Natural History Museum, the name of this exhibit causes guests to make preconceptions about what they will find inside.  I entertained thoughts of detailed drawings with scientific names and specimens in bell jars.  One of the pieces flanking the exhibit entrance is Mel Bochner’s Measurement: Plant.  This piece addressed the role of observation and measurement in nature in a unique way that simultaneously addressed my preconceptions and erased them by addressing the idea of ‘documenting’ nature in a new way.

In comparison to the broad theme of the exhibit, the space itself seemed small, although it was efficiently used.  The very broad theme of ‘natural history’ was explored in diverse ways for such a small group of artists, who were all contemporary.  However, this history was present through the dialogue created by the pieces, such as through Rachel Harrison’s Utopia sculpture, which referenced Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.  The natural history of Western Pennsylvania was included in a photograph of a coal chute.  Only one piece addressed animal life in relation to nature: Fischli & Weiss’s dual films documenting animals more commonly associated with domesticity, rather than nature: a kitten lapping milk and a dog barking against a chain fence.  This piece was particularly interesting in its inclusion in the exhibit, by raising questions about the boundaries between ‘civilized’, domestic life and nature, and the extent to which these overlap when nature enters the home.

This exhibit was impressive in its capacity to take standard conceptions of documenting nature and turning them on their heads, as well as making good use of the space provided.

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Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery, Natural History

Don’t let the title of the current exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery, Natural History, confuse you. Although curator Dan Byers has borrowed the phrase from the neighboring Museum of Natural History, there are no fossils, gems, or lengthy placards to be seen in this group exhibition. Rather, the giant title printed at the entrance begs the question: how might the meaning of a scientific term, Natural History, change in an artistic context, and what new interpretations might this allow?

In the one room exhibition space, the artworks, which span painting, photography, sculpture and video, share a common motif of natural imagery. The press release states that the artists “collectively” address how “humans understand and visualize our natural environment.”  Indeed, many of the pieces depict humans in relation to their natural environment, evoking the interplay that arises in the context of a post-industrial society. However, some of the works go further than simply representing this relationship. While the conceptual concerns of the individual pieces are various and largely dissonant, they all hint at the tension that grows out of our interactions with nature. And it is this tension that resonates throughout, and which seems to have been central to the curatorial intentions.

Many of these ideas are exemplified in Llyn Foulke’s massive painting, Les Beaux, whichspans an interior wall. It depicts a mountain range in a restricted blue palette beneath a light yellow sky. A sky-colored hole is cut out of each of two mountain peaks. These holes, which are far too perfect and large to be natural, disrupt the image and confuse the scale and realism of the landscape. The holes, which literally botch a successful representation of the natural scene, become symbolic of the boring, destructive force of human imperfection in nature’s perfection.

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Carnegie Museum of Art: Natural History

In contrast to the overwhelming clarity sought by the Museum of Natural History next door, this exhibit in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery approached Natural History in a manner more concerned with the opacity and ambiguity with which humans experience the natural world. It draws entirely from the museum’s permanent collection, presenting the works of 15 artists who are, for the most part, either American or European. This selection tailored the content to a specific kind of landscape, referencing western art historical approaches to natural subject matter.

For a small space that usually houses a limited number of works, this exhibition tended to feel somewhat overcrowded, as many of the pieces were large in scale. Valeska Soares’ Horizontes dominated an entire length of the gallery with a strong horizon line mapped out over forty-five separate wooden boxes, but with the repetition of motifs, the walk from one end to the other left one feeling lost and stagnant. Peter Doig’s DriftWood occupied another significant portion of the gallery with transparency and semi-abstraction that is typical of his work. The inclusion and display of three-dimensional work in Natural History was well handled and interesting, as it allowed the works to become a part of the landscape of the gallery. Rachel Harrison’s Utopia has human presence in the gallery, with its sickly green polystyrene façade housing a small statue that gives an amusing reference to the Caspar David Friedrich painting Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist.

While this exhibition only subtly challenged the notion of what is natural, as an attempt to branch the two wings of the Carnegie Museums, it was an interesting suggestion of a different kind of truth about human’s place in the natural world.

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Charlee Brodsky: GOOD DOG

Charlee Brodsky has chosen her unwitting dog Max to play the leading role at the Pittsburgh Centre of the Arts’ annual Artist of the Year exhibition, curated by Charlie Humphrey. The terrier is present in every single image, frameless on the wall or on the pages of a series of uniform handmade books. As a photographer, and currently a professor at CMU, Brodsky continues to create photo narratives that explore and reveal burdens of illness and the body, though it may appear to be a show on one’s pet adoration at first sight. Max accompanies carefully chosen selections of texts from writers such as Shelley, Muir, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky, with each writer to their own section of the exhibition.

When entering the space we’re drawn to the room titled The Artist, but rather than finding anything biographical from Brodsky we end up following Max, who urges us to grab onto his purple leash as he wanders around Pittsburgh. Quotes from prominent artists are inserted between images, illustrating what captivates artists as well as their unique awareness– getting inspiration from the ordinary, the deteriorating, the man-made. Max is the Artist, showing us this on his course. The Pittsburgh cityscape continues into the next room, where quotes of Muir float below the photos on a dark green wall.  The wilderness that the naturalist and conservationist is referring to, next to the industrial background that Max is exploring, feel contradictory even though they enjoyed it as much as each other.

There is a clearer correlation between the images and each line of Shelley, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky; the narrative is more linear and the photos were seemingly planned, or rather, or maybe just with as much direction as a dog can follow. Max, as Frankenstein, poses as an unborn creature of a shadow – “Hateful day when I received life”  – and manages to look a pitiful creature, made an outcast from his looks. In all her pieces, it’s the humourous contrast between the social issues she raises and her lovable dog that emphasises its seriousness and absurdity. By conveying human emotion and experience through a dog, we can study ourselves slightly more objectively. If any part of the exhibition looked like “glorified facebooking” as Brodsky was keenly aware, it would be the imagery supporting they words of Shakespeare in While the Sun is Bright, or in the Darkest Night. With the two dogs Sam and Max acting as lovers she comes perhaps a little too close to the stereotypical obsessive photos that pet adorers are known to take.

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Review of Natural History

The exhibition is about psychological landscape, in other words, artist’s creative engagement with his/her environment. Instead of naming the exhibition as what it obviously is, the curator purposed “natural history”, the scientific studies of plants and animals in their natural environment, to be the title and the theme through out the show. To decipher the ways in which the concept “natural history” being embedded in the exhibition, the eye has to linger on the totality fabricated by the gallery space and physical artworks.

It is not mere coincidence that the exhibition space was set up in such a fashion evoking the experience of exploring nature. The gallery is crammed with works of various media, some of which are immense via-à-vis the compressed space. When standing opposite to Llyn Foulkes’s Les Beaux, the spectator’s view is dominated by a gigantic rock formation, and the spectator is compelled to retreat in the face of the sublime.

By one way or another, the show formulates a parallel between experiences of encountering artworks and conducting natural history studies. Miniature copies of artworks attached next to the original work equip the spectator to interact with the art in both conceptual and physical ways. Taking a scrape, sticking it onto a blank page, and taking one’s interpretation—these successive acts imitate naturalist’s method of data collection. This curatorial innovation subjugating the physical work to an intimate interaction effectively helps the viewer to build up a personal connection with the art.

What is at stake here is the dynamism of the discursive space of human, nature, and art. When they are crumpled into one totality in such a small exhibition, the outcome can be extreme. It may turn out to be a disaster of confusions, or it could be a refreshed synthesis of a wide range of human experience. Anyhow, it is an intriguing and playful show that touches the question on interrelation between artistic approaches and scientific methods that is prone to further inspection.


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