Sunday, November 26, 2006

Rosamond Purcell's Art from Decay

Rosamond Purcell has a long history of providing inspiration to the Zymoglyphic Museum as a photographer of museum specimens, a scholar of curiosities, an exhibit curator, a writer, and an assemblage artist of decay. Her photographs of natural history museum specimens earned her a place in the museum's Photographers of the Marvelous online photography exhibit, and her use of natural light in these pictures has been an inspiration to our own curatorial department's attempts to document our museum's collections. One of her collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould, Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors, includes the story of Peter the Great's Kunstkammer in 18th century Russia, and, in particular, his acquisition of Frederik Ruysch's collection of anatomical dioramas and other preparations. The book includes Purcell's photographs of some of the few remaining Ruysch objects . Further research on curiosities and marvels led her to write Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters, examing the historical significance of marvels.

In 2003, Purcell curated a traveling exhibit called Two Rooms. One room was a reconstruction of a small but historically important natural history museum created in the 17th century by Ole Worm. The other room featured a reconstruction of Purcell's own studio/museum, with walls of rusted metal sheets, a library of decayed, worm-eaten books, and arrangements of a variety of objects transformed by nature and weathering. Most of these objects came from a single source, a vast junkyard in Maine which she has been mining for aesthetic gold for two decades, and whose story is told in the book Owls Head

Her new book Bookworm: The Art of Rosamond Purcell finally showcases her photographs of her own found and created decayed objects. The range is a mix of weathered objects and textures, photographic collages, and assemblages constructed for the purposes of the photograph. Shown above is "Book for Fishes", combining a fish skeleton with an old, insect-eaten book found in a Harvard library. For a preview of the book, see the slideshow/review at

There seem to be still more Zymoglyphic inspirations which have yet be fully documented. Above are two photographs from "Two Rooms", the exhibition catalog. The top one is a "miniature museum" from 1994, similar in spirit to the Zymoglyphic shoebox art galleries and the bottom shows a number of objects on display in her studio, any of which would be at home in our museum.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Fictocryptic Museum

The Museum of Jurassic Technology has recently been enmeshed in the Museum of Dust's acquisition spree (a fate which befell the Zymoglyphic Museum not so long ago), with the MoD director proclaiming the MJT to be the "grandparent of all modern fictocryptic establishments".

I had heard about this museum for many years and had seen some of its traveling exhibits. I finally was able to visit it in person when I went to Los Angeles last August. The museum is often referred to as a "curiosity cabinet", which is generally a haphazard collection of interesting stuff, but the MJT model is really more an instructive academic museum with professional-looking exhibits, each examining some esoteric phenomenon in great detail. In this museum, however, the phenomena described may or may not be fictional, and the way the line is straddled is subtle enough to keep you guessing even when you know what is going on. The book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology details one writer's attempt to cut through the fog of uncertainty surrounding the museum. It is, in a way, a highly rarefied version of a circus sideshow, where some of the freaks are real and some are not, but what really matters is the atmosphere created.

"Is this place real or what?"
"It's here, isn't it?"

--Conversation overheard at the MJT, October 2000, quoted in this article

To me, the fascination of the MJT is the pure physical presence of the place, its dark lighting, well-crafted vitrines, surreal dioramas, and labyrinthine exhibit rooms, including a theater and a tea room. The image above is from a Flickr photoset of the MJT by The Blen that gives you a good sense of what the museum is like. It's interesting to compare the MJT with Steven Millhauser's Barnum Museum which, being made entirely of words, is not subject to any physical laws.

While not truly an inspiration for the Zymoglyphic Museum, there has been some pollination wafting our way from the southland. The physical existence of the Zymoglyphic Museum is important, in that it exists in a geographic location and has real objects in it, but there is more of an emphasis on outreach through photography and web presence than on perfecting the physical exhibit space. The Lower Jurassic is much more technologically oriented than the Zymoglyphic culture, which tends toward rust and decay anyway. The Zymoglyphic Museum, like the MJT, has sometimes been accused of lax standards in the factual accuracy of its presentations (which it can neither confirm nor deny), and both may ultimately turn out to be physical manifestations of the internal worlds of their creators.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Designer" Jewelry with Insect Larvae

Caddis flies live near ponds and streams. As larvae, they live underwater and make wearable tubes from local materials, such as twigs, sand, stones, or snail shells. The items they select are bound with silk and the larva hooks itself inside with the end of its abdomen. They are thus candidates for our stable of "natural assemblage artists" which include the bowerbirds and the Xenophora. The tubes serve various purposes - stones can be added to increase traction in fast-moving streams; irregular twigs make the tube (and its inhabitant) difficult for a trout to swallow. This may be considered more engineering than artistry, but in this case nature has a human collaborator. French artist Hubert Duprat has developed a method of getting the larvae to use more upscale materials, such as gold flakes, pearls, and sapphires, which would of course have no practical benefit in the wild and thus gets much closer to "art". Here is an interview with the artist as he describes the process in detail, and he and an art critic discuss whether there is actually a creative contribution from the insect in this "collaboration".

Here are some examples of what the caddis fly larvae build on their own:

from Scotland's Hunterian Museum Animal Architecture Collection

From the book Animal Artisans

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Andy Goldsworthy's Collaborations with Nature

As I noted last week, in David Attenborough's documentaries, the natural world is teeming, bizarre place of baroque mating rituals, predation, and survival. A more bucolic view of nature is one that looks at the beauty in natural forms and patterns. One of the themes in Zymoglyphic culture is making art from natural objects, often with minimal transformation. Andy Goldsworthy is the purest Western practitioner of the craft of arranging natural materials into art forms. Usually, it is a matter of lightly imposing some human abstraction - a circle, spiral, or an unnatural crack - in a natural landscape to somehow achieve a magical effect. Some of his creations are permanent installations in stone, but most are ephemeral structures of ice, leaves, water, sticks or the crackles in drying mud. For these, his photographs become the final creative product and only remaining evidence of the work. The photographs in turn are available in a series of high-quality books. A good survey is Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature.

A lesser-known type of work that he does are "snowball paintings", which are created by putting a snowball stained with a natural dye on paper and letting it melt. The result is an amazingly detailed pattern created by the way the dye is deposited as the snow melts and the water evaporates. A detail from one is shown here, with an enlargement here. The Zymoglyphic acrylic paintings achieve a similar effect from the deposition patterns of the (unnatural) acrylic pigment.

An additional dimension to Goldsworthy's work is provided in the excellent documentary Rivers & Tides, which shows his work in a context of time and motion that you don't see as much in the still photographs. A pile of sticks by the shore is demolished bit by bit by the tides; a string of leaves snakes its way lazily down a creek.

He has two permanent installations in the Bay Area. One is Stone River in front of the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus, and the other
is at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Alexander Calder's Inventive Influence

I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last weekend to see the "Surreal Calder" show. I had seen the big centennial Calder show there in 1998, so this trip was more like visiting old friends than seeing something new. If you have not seen his work in person, it is definitely worth the trip. The show is up until May 21, and there is a bonus concurrent exhibition of Surrealist photography.

Calder has been a source of inspiration for me for many years. His work has a playful quality. The mobiles for which he is best known are an elegant combination of art, physics, and engineering; compostional balance, for example, is connected to physical balance. By relying on air currents to power them he makes visible the invisible medium that surrounds us (unfortunately, in the museum setting, the "mobiles" don't move).

He also made wire sculptures, a sort of line drawing in three dimensions. His head portraits in wire are especially interesting to see in person because of the way they change as you look at them from different angles.

His "surrealist objects" often combine sticks, wood, or stone with biomorphic, amoeboid abstractions. It's interesting to compare the "Apple Monster", shown here, with the "Spirit Figure" in the de Young Museum's New Guinea collection.

This show also includes a sort of "curiosity cabinet", an alcove containing a selection of objects that he had in his studio, including a large thigh bone, a fish-shaped plate, and figurines.

For more information on Calder, see the Calder Foundation page.
A comprehensive catalog of his work: Alexander Calder, 1898-1976
Also recommended is the 1976 book Calder's Universe


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Robert Hudson's Wild Constructions

I took advantage last weekend of a rare sunny day to motor on up to the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa for a retrospective of Robert Hudson's work. Hudson has been working in the Bay area since the 1960's, creating works that are a wildly improbable mix of elements - taxidermy, brightly colored paint, welded steel, furniture, geometric elements, farm tools, natural objects like sticks and antlers, ceramics that look like sticks and rocks, wire, rusty metal, pictures, and a variety of both unusual and ordinary found objects. Somehow it all works together in a way that creates a complex but balanced and unified object. To me it is a curiosity cabinet approach that ends up as a constructed sculpture, an integrated object instead of just a collection of objects.

Works shown are "Outrigger" (1984) and "Panoramic Vision" (1996). Hudson has only a scattered internet presence. The best reference for his work is the catalog of his 1985 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Robert Hudson: A Survey


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ferdinand Cheval and Le Palais Ideal

This entry was inspired by the Athanasius Kircher Society's "Visionary Architecture Week" and its coverage of the "Palais Ideal" in southeastern France. The palace was built by Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924) over a period of some 33 years and it has been number one on my must-see list for many years. He built it using stones gathered on his rounds as a postman, as well as creating his own forms. I finally made a pilgrimage here in the fall of 2002. It is a wonder to behold. It contains a melange of architectural styles (real and imagined) with columns, arches, turrets, passageways, terraces, and giant statues. Inside and out are grottoes, galleries, rock gardens, and all manner of organic plant and animal creations emerging from it.

The Surrealists were fond of it, especially Andre Breton, who proclaimed Cheval as one of his own. Cheval has an entry in the Concise Encyclopedia of Surrealism which says, "The fantastic style of the palace...was often referred to by the Surrealists as an example of dream-life entering the real world."

A number of quotes from him were published in issue 38 of Raw Vision as an autobiography of sorts. He says:

I used to build a fairy-like palace [in my] imagination with all that the genius of a humble man could conceive (with grottoes, towers, gardens, castles, museums and sculptures) ...It so happened that just when my dream was gradually sinking in the mists of oblivion suddenly an incident brought it all back to me: I stumbled on a stone that nearly made me fall. I wanted to examine it closely, my stumbling block: its shape was so bizarre that I picked it up and took it away with me. The following day I went back to the same place and I found more beautiful stones which, gathered on the spot, looked so pretty and filled me with enthusiasm. Then I said to myself: ‘Since Nature provided me with sculptures I shall become an architect and a mason (besides who isn’t a bit of a mason?).'

Among the many details of the palace, one aspect that was of particular interest to me was his display of interesting stones. The inspiring "stumbling block" he mentions can be seen here, perched on a pedestal on an upper terrace, just as any viewing stone might be. A particularly intricate and organic rock has been framed in its own grotto like a religious icon. Some of the rocks which he found contained fossils and other pictorial elements. They are on display together in another nook as the "Museum of Antediluvian Stones".

A comprehensive and well-illustrated documentation of the palace is
Le palais idéal du facteur Cheval: Quand le songe devient la réalité (Collection "Les Bâtisseurs inspirés") (text in French). This book may also be found at

Photographs shown here by Jim Stewart, copyright 2002
For more photos, see here
For visiting information, see the official site


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Michael McMillen's Dioramas

We went down to the de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara last weekend to see Michael McMillen's latest installation, Red Trailer Motel. It will be on view until March 18, 2006. If you go, be sure to walk on the gravel, get up close to the doors and peer into the peepholes!

Michael has a long history of creating both full-size and miniature dioramas, always amazing, involving found objects and set pieces that he has constructed. We were fortunate enough to catch his big show at the Oakland Museum in 1991.

For a good overview of his work, see here. One of the interviews there takes place in his yard, where "stuff" has been accumulating for decades. More details of the Red Trailer Motel can be seen here at his Los Angeles gallery's site.

Permanent installations of his work can be found in the following locations:
- The Los Angeles County Museum has "Central Meridian", AKA "the garage", an amazing walk-through assemblage of a garage that is part Egyptian temple. See here for an interview with him that takes place in the garage.
- The entrance to the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena has "Motel (Under the World)" featuring an oil-guzzling robot watching TV in his underground room
- The San Jose Museum of Art has The Third Eye, a peephole into a sixties head shop
- The Oakland Museum has Aristotle's Cage, an evocative miniature diorama of a trailer in the desert.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Karl Blossfeldt

Neva Beach has graciously donated to the museum 13 prints from the 1929 edition of Karl Blossfeldt's Urformen der Kunst, along with a nice assortment of rusty metal and gnarly driftwood. Blossfeldt is featured in the museum's Photographers of the Marvelous online exhibit. The Blossfeldt prints form a major enhancement to the museum's photography collection. An online version of the book may be seen here. Blossfeldt's photography has been an inspiration to the museum's staff photographer, who envies Blossfeldt's ability to give a monumental, architectural presence to small scale natural objects - a major goal in photographing, for example, the museum's small dioramas and viewing stones.
An excellent book: Karl Blossfeldt: 1865-1932 (Photo Book Series)

-- The Museum Staff

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