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, October 15, 2006

From the Ancient Land of Happy Objects

A return trip to the de Young Museum in San Francisco turned up this fellow, a local emissary from Remojadas, the ancient Land of Happy Objects. Cheeky Pete was delighted to learn of this long-sought ur-object, the King of Happy Objects, but despite intense imaginary negotiations with the de Young curatorial staff, it was not possible for him to obtain the King for the museum's Happy Objects Collection. The King thus remains trapped in his plexiglass case. He is originally from the Veracruz area of Mexico, and is some 1300 years old. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a cousin of his, and nervily suggests that his happiness is primarily due to intoxication.

The Remojadas culture had its "Classic" period between 500 and 800 AD, and produced a large number of "smiling figures". Further research by the curatorial staff has revealed the existence of a classic 1960 tome about the figurines produced in Remojadas: William Spratling's More human than divine: An intimate and lively self-portrait in clay of a smiling people from ancient Vera Cruz. Spratling was a collector, and waxes naively rhapsodic about the people who produced these figurines:
The little people of Remojadas flourished, loving their own creations, presumably in utter peace and contentment, for more than eight hundred years.

The main attraction of the book is the set of plates by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a leading Mexican photographer often linked with the Surrealists. The photographs reveal that the figurines had a whole range of expression, not just smiling. The plates are classics of artifact photography.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Quiet Parlor of the Fishes

Late in the 1980's, before the Zymoglyphic Museum existed, I had an idea to make an aquarium, not with water, but a scene with a sandy bottom. This would be a big version of the surreal scenes in sandtrays that I had been making at that time. I was recently married then, and the theme was of two fish making a home in a strange world. I liked the idea that the result would be a piece of furniture you would have in your house, rather than a piece of art intended for a pedestal in a gallery. It was even rather practical, in that it would be very low maintenance for an aquarium. The aquarium was made of various things that I had found and had been given. My wife was making intricate hinged fish out of metal and plexiglass, and I thought an aquarium would make a nice home for some of them.

Even the title, "The Quiet Parlor of the Fishes", is a found object, taken from Thoreau's "Walden":

I cut my way through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

"Walden" was one of my favorite books in high school. It provided a mythic and spiritual dimension to nature that transcended the mere collecting, naming, and classifying of specimens, which had been the focus of my original museum. The summer between high school and college, I even tried a brief emulation of Thoreau's year-long stay at Walden pond. I camped out by myself for four days on an island in the middle of a small mountain lake in Olympic National Park. I paddled out to the island on a primitive boat made by tying driftwood logs together, read Walden, and wrote a short journal, trying to emulate Thoreau's 19th century style.

In this dry aquarium, the two fish have a little television set in their parlor and are watching a program that features one of the Judy's art-fish. They also have their own little dry aquarium, foreshadowing the worlds-within-worlds theme of the museum-to-come. This first aquarium was followed by a series of small dioramas inside standard 10-gallon aquariums. Some had a terrestrial theme and some were aquatic. The serenity of the underwater world, eternal and unchanging, gave way to the archetype of the primordial ooze, a crowded, dense, active, messy world of creation, decay, and conflict, and a Walden-like mythological cycle of death and rebirth.

In recent years, I have been trying to capture a sense of the little worlds inside the dioramas in close-up photography and I think this is one of the more successful attempts. It is the little aquarium in fishes' parlor. This picture was, in fact, my entree into hallowed halls of the Museum of Dust.

In the past couple of months, Judy has been experimenting with pinhole photography, using homemade mini-cameras. I was not convinced of the true potential of this technique until she took some photos of the aquarium, which gave the whole thing a dreamlike air. The full set of photos can be seen here. One of the those photos, of an astronaut from the moon who is coming to visit the fish, resulted in her own initiation into the Museum of Dust.

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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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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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