Natural history museums, despite their names, are pretty unnatural. Antisocial carnivores cluster in nuclear families, while the tanned skin of sea creatures is painted to match their living colors. In a series of dioramas, Brooklyn-based artist Lori Nix plays with the absurdities of these spaces.
Nix is currently exhibiting black-and-white photographs of her models, as well as one diorama, at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Unnatural History is part of an ongoing project she started in 2009, selections of which she’s previously exhibited at ClampArt Gallery in 2010 and CEPA Gallery in 2011. The 2014 additions include “Bird Room,” in which a wide-eyed, stuffed owl rests on a desk alongside some half-eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken. Nix writes in her statement:
Humor has always played a part in all of my photographs and I wanted to continue that into this series. The setting of a museum uses the idea that what is being presented is true; that is what museums do, they educate. I purposefully tweak that notion, presenting “almost true” dioramas, as in “North American Beaver” which places the animals outside of a crate marked “Product of Mexico.” In other photos, the wooden framework of a mastodon is being layered with papier-mâché, the angler fish is not self-illuminating but instead requires a “jump start” from a battery, and pre-historic spiders once rivaled humans in scale.
For Unnatural History, Nix took inspiration from natural history displays of the 1940s and ’50s, especially at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She has worked with small-scale dioramas extensively, from dogs circling a tree house to city sites like beauty and violin repair shops in apocalyptic ruins, giving them a dark humor. The details are what make them extraordinary, especially since Nix and her assistant craft almost all of the individual pieces by hand. (She notes on her site that she has “miniature power tools throughout the apartment, a chop saw under the kitchen table, a miniature table saw on top.”) In the “Gallery of Important and Interesting Rocks” — whose title fits in perfectly with real arcane natural history gallery names like the Hall of Extinct Monsters — a bit of peach pit poses as one of the specimens. In “Olympic Forest,” the tentacles of a mythical “N. Am. Tree Cephalopod” dangle out of a crate.
If you’ve ever seen a natural history diorama being maintained — miniature bison hand-lifted into the herd, a grizzly bear’s glass eyes blown clean — some of the silliness of Nix’s work isn’t far off. Going behind-the-scenes already has a very unnatural absurdity. Yet, in the end it’s Nix’s final products, the photographs, that really blend her work with the museums’ art of deception.
Lori Nix: Unnatural History continues at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia) through August 2.