(Un)Natural History
400 Years of Oddities, Curiosities and Exaggerations in the Pursuit of Nature and Beauty

It is the nature of the pursuit of beauty and the beauty of the pursuit of nature that unites these artists of disparate means and historical contexts.  This exhibition seeks to evoke in the 21st-century viewer the same sense of wonder and perhaps disbelief that the naturalist of centuries past must have experienced first hand.

Thornton "Cereus" Martina Nehrling "Before We Forget" Besler "Mother-in-Law Cushion"


Shown side by side, the oldest work, a 1613 engraving by Basilius Besler of a cactus whimsically (or maliciously) titled, “Mother-in-law’s Cushion,” and the newest work, a recently completed mixed media watercolor by Martina Nehrling, have a dialog that transcends four centuries’ divide.  Besler illustrated an exotic plant that was literally a foreign object to the 17th -century European viewer, and Nehrling invents new material techniques and compositions that seek to present a similar strange newness.

To the nature enthusiast of the early 1700s, Maria Sibylla Merian’s astonishing engravings depicting the then-scientifically unvetted process of metamorphosis along with the flora and fauna of Surinam in South America must have looked like unreal flights of her imagination.  Today we can experience a similar sensation of terror-tinged fascination in the semi-fictional amalgamations of Gregory Jacobsen, Seymour Rosofsky and Saya Woolfalk.  Like Merian, Woolfalk’s watercolors were created in situ in South America – but 306 years later.  The colors, customs and flamboyant nature of South America and its people similarly inspired Woolfalk, but her works are pure fantasies.  Gregory Jacobsen’s “Botanical Heaps” are also made up from whole cloth – or more accurately various foodstuffs, muscle tissue, viscous fluids and body parts, lovingly presented to us as horrible bouquets.  We are familiar with the ingredients, but entirely unacquainted with, and confounded by the whole.


Gregory Jacobsen "Roving Pile"

This exhibition also aspires to reacquaint, or in fact familiarize today’s viewer with the freshness, artistic merit and even oddity of these amazing antique prints.  Through the many advances of imaging technology from engraving, etching, lithography, and chromolithography to photography, film, and video – each in the service of progress and information dissemination, the earliest techniques have been made obsolete and are largely lost to time.  Most of the plants, birds, insects etc. illustrated in the prints are no longer as wondrous to our eye, but the works as art are truly awe-inspiring. Cotton rag paper – hundreds of years old – maintains its sheet-tone, holds the etched or engraved line and original watercolor with an immediacy that defies time.

It is true that the initial goal of natural history illustration was simply to document flora and fauna as accurately as possible.  But these works have always transcended mere academic depiction and achieved much more.  By including new scientifically based theories, they furthered man’s understanding of nature and natural systems.  By exploring new lands, they widened man’s scope and placement in the context of the natural world.  By including works of philosophy, religion and poetry, they defined man’s humanism and gained an understanding and thus the merest foothold on the all-encompassing power of nature for themselves and for posterity, and above all, their art (line, color, composition, and design) paid homage to and truly glorified the wonder of nature for all time.



Artists of Antiquity (by date):

Artists Currently Active (alphabetically):

  Baslius Besler (1561 - 1629)
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 - 1717)
Albertus Seba (1665 - 1736)
Mark Catesby (1682 - 1749)
George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 - 1788)
Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708 - 1770)
William Curtis (1746-1799)
Sydenham Edwards (1768 - 1819)
Dr. Robert John Thornton (1768 - 1837)
Frederick Burr Opper (1857 - 1937)
Aussel (dates unknown, active early 20th c.)
Seymour Rosofsky (1924 - 1981)
Molly Briggs
Trine Bumiller
Ben Butler
Julie Heffernan
Gregory Jacobsen
Anna Joelsdottir
Martina Nehrling
Suzy Poling
Beth Reitmeyer
Fred Stonehouse
Saya Woolfalk

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