James Michael Starr, The Short of Karl Heck (mixed media), 2006
Wunderkammer [VOON-der KAMM-er] is German for ‘chamber of wonders.’ Historically, they were the Renaissance trophy rooms that evolved into today’s museums. Wunderkammer is also the title of a new gallery show in Dallas. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the title fits.
- FrontRow review
- ArtThisWeek interview with curator Philip Jones
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
Wunderkammer, the current group exhibition at the Conduit Gallery is a grab-bag of odds and ends, the bizarre and the banal. But it’s a fascinating grab-gab.
Which is what wunderkammers and wunderkabinetts originally were. From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment — as Europeans conquered the planet and developed science into an organized system of discovery and proof — kings, explorers and “natural philosophers” collected everything from anatomical oddities and bird skulls to meteorites and Buddhist statues. (left: Turner and Guyon, Wildebeest, skull, gold leaf and hardware).
These “cabinets of curiosities” exuded an air of esoteric knowledge in the way they displayed the foreign and freakish. The wunderkammers were expressions of curiosity and power (especially colonial power). They said, “Look how strange the world is.” And they said, “Look at how I can bring back distant cultures and mythic beasts. The world is knowable and controllable, once it’s caught, labeled and displayed.”
Phillip Jones is a contemporary-art curator who runs Institute 193, a downtown arts space in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s a one-man operation, which may explain why he’s admirably keen on collaborations. In this case, he’s worked with Conduit Gallery to showcase some 20 artists from Texas and Kentucky — to get attention for them outside their respective areas.
Not surprisingly, the works he’s chosen play on the arcane, the incongruous or the captured. Marvin Francis, for instance, is a convicted murderer, a Kentucky prison inmate who’s permitted to use only toilet paper and acrylic paint to build his award-winning sculptures. They’re disturbing, cartoony figures of pain and incarceration, like monsters from a horror comic.
In a quieter vein, the brilliant Kentucky artist Steve Armstrong crafts kinetic sculptures, wooden whirligigs and hand-cranked mannequins (right: Japonais, mixed media with wooden moving parts). Automata were often featured in wunderkammer. They brought into question what is human (if it can be duplicated with gears and pulleys) while demonstrating ingenious developments in clockwork mechanisms. But here, too, there is entrapment: The movements of these figures are fairly limited. They’re imprisoned in wood slabs, only a hand or chin peeping out of little windows. (You are permitted to crank them — in fact, you can pick up other works as well.)
The wunderkammers weren’t simply exotic displays; they often organized the strange into the pseudo-encyclopedic. They were menageries ordered and compartmentalized according to hunter’s pride, aesthetic taste and whatever pre-Linneaen system of zoological classification the owner fancied. Hence, the way the Conduit Gallery exhibition is set out on tables and metal shelves — like old apothecary cases. Dallas artist Jil Foley has even used her trademark medium — cardboard — to fashion a large, ungainly cabinet, spreading vine-like along one wall (in this instance, I prefer her cute, droll doll-portraits of artists Robert Motherwell and Dorothea Tanning – presumably an inspiration for Foley because of Tanning’s own soft, stuffed sculptures).
This idea of classification and organization is exemplified by Dallas artist James Sullivan’s What Remains — two metal tables with neatly ranked yet unidentified items, rocks, pieces of metal, some found objects, others half-fashioned into cocoon-like or nest-like accretions. The title suggests a post-catastrophic futility or perhaps an archaeological dig: These bits and pieces are all that’s left of — whatever. They’re like a discreet version of James Joyce’s description of human history (“ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry”). Sullivan even includes a little pile of paper labels: the naming and numbering has been abandoned, we’ll never know what all these things are, where they came from, why they’re organized like this, some by association, some in seemingly random patterns.
In fact, after collection and display, the essential process of the wunderkammer is association/intersection (oddity sitting next to less creepy oddity), which inevitably favors the surrealist collage. Unrelated objects are yoked together into something provocative or dreamlike. Trinkets become religious totems — such as Robert Morgan‘s wildly colorful, angelic statues (below). They’re reef-like accumulations of re-purposed stuff: strings of beads, lights, rubber toys, sequins, plasticware. The baby figures resemble ancient Roman putti dragged from the sea floor, encrusted with barnacles. They seem alien or godlike — voodoo effigies. Or victims of some Mardi Gras paintball party.
Or there’s Dallas artist James Michael Starr’s Had a Dream: a barn-shaped bird cage, wallpapered with old prints, with no floor, the door open. The dream has fled — yet the cage still contains an aura about it.
These are the highlights of the show. With more than 100 objects on display, a number seem inert or uninspired. But if he wanted to collect curiosities and showcase artists, curator Jones also wanted to assemble a distinctly Southern miscellany. On that point, at least, he seems to have failed. Wunderkammer does have elements of the carnival sideshow, and the gothic, of course, has long been a Southern specialty.
But taken together, all of these items don’t add up to anything particularly Southern. That happens only when they’re funky and wondrous and odd.