Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sarah Cusimano Miles at Martine Chaisson

That oft repeated phrase, "man's conquest of nature," has been sounding a tad ironic of late. Science and technology are just as amazing as ever, but Ma Nature has been pushing back, serving up a bumper crop of wind, water and wildfire disasters over the last few years. The old renaissance ideal of turning the natural world into art at least maintained a sense of balance--the still life (aka "nature morte" or "dead nature") paintings of the period often had a leering human skull placed among the fruit and flowers to remind us that mortality always had the last laugh. But old time natural history museums of the past often seemed sort of dead to start with. Sarah Cusimano Miles' Solomon's House photo series deploys vintage objects from the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama, and subjects them to her camera's penetrating, ultra-high resolution gaze. Inspired by Francis Bacon's proposed utopian 17th century natural sciences academy of the same name, Solomon's House is an oddly psychological, sometimes disturbing, series that reveals as much about human attitudes as it does about its animal subjects themselves, taking us on a journey where vintage science itself is put under a microscope.

Some images involve straightforward, if unusually aesthetic, views of frogs and reptiles in bottles of formaldehyde, but others feature stuffed birds and animals in the studied poses of vintage still life compositions with fresh fruit or veggies. The results are beautiful yet strikingly and intentionally "off" in ways that reflect the ambiguities of scientific "progress" and its relation to the evolution of art over the years. In Herring Gull with Artichoke, top, the stuffed gull seems to have swooned at the sight of the artichoke, while the equally aged little bird in Lilac Breasted Roller with Kumquats, above left, looks tragic, as if it keeled over amid the chaos of spilled kumquats and an overturned silver pedestal dish. And Pangolin with Garlic, above, suggests a Jurassic gormand on a rampage. It's a weird new take on the old forbidden fruit theme, a metaphor, perhaps, for an age in which art and science, old and new, sometimes appear almost hopelessly entangled, and nothing is as clear as the utopian scientists of the past had once imagined. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Solomon's House: Photographs by Sarah Cusimano Miles, Through January 26, Martine Chaisson Gallery, 727 Camp St., 302-7942