Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerrotype, also coined the term “diorama.” It comes from the Greek for “seeing through,” which is a thoughtful way of describing what happens when we look at well-crafted images. Photographs and dioramas, at their best, act as windows into faraway places. They trick us into thinking that we’re peering into the actual Grand Canyon, or a real-life Himalayan ridge, instead of a dusty museum display or the tiny screen of a smart phone.
The Nature of Things, a two-woman exhibition at Prospect Range in Brooklyn, takes advantage of the way we look at nature. Natalie Conn, a Brooklyn-based documentary photographer, presents a series of carefully-staged photographs of dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. Rebecca Bird, a Brooklyn-based painter, has created intricate but unsettling watercolors of plants and animals, especially dead birds.
At first glance, Bird’s paintings and Conn’s photographs may seem familiar, perhaps because both artists borrow scientific iconography that has become ubiquitous. Conn’s photographs look like the dioramas they depict, complete with taxidermy animals and painted backgrounds, but they also recall other representations of nature, from vacation photos on Instagram to wildlife documentaries on PBS. Bird, meanwhile, paints with the exactitude of early naturalists, for whom art was a method to map out the planet and its species. (Though she lacks formal training in anatomy, Bird’s skill as a painter once got her hired as a medical illustrator.)
But neither artist ultimately seems won over by the scientific gaze. In Bird’s painting “Condensation” (2003), three birds appear to curl up against a larger bird, like ducklings against their mother. But any sense of peacefulness is deceptive. The birds are not so much lifelike as lifeless: this is how birds look when they’re splayed out on the sidewalk, or after they’ve struck glass. Water droplets, rendered with amazing attention to color and shape, drip from two of the birds, guiding the eye through the white space around the birds.
Such calm depictions of death, in such a careful composition, suggest that Bird may be trying to capture something that is slipping away. Not the birds themselves, but the intricate structure of nature, before insects, microorganisms, and humans have had a chance to break it down. Bird often takes walks to find birds to paint; some of them presumably die after hitting cars and buildings. While she paints them, using a number 4 watercolor brush, they apparently change as they stiffen and dry out. One might be tempted to call the birds specimens, but Bird’s paintings are too sensitive for that.
“Peeling Kinglet” (2018), which depicts a bird tucked into the curl of an orange peel, is similarly ephemeral. The care with which it was painted — the almost abstract composition, the contrast of soft feathers against a smooth peel — make it seem soothing at first, and then unsettling. Not all of Bird’s paintings explore this contrast so successfully: two crowded and colorful paintings of rotting compost, for example, look more like studies than finished works; unlike the birds, they seem wild and unconstrained. But those that succeed are astonishing; photographs don’t do them justice.
Dead animals also appear in the photographs of Natalie Conn — but they are meant to look alive, and eerily, they do. While Bird seems interested in preserving the transitory order of nature, Conn draws attention to the artificiality of preservation itself. Dioramas are designed to transport the viewer, to make them forget the lights, the cameras, the captions. But Conn, in many of her photographs, deliberately includes the structures of the diorama itself, as if to remind us that human encounters with nature are often constrained and circumscribed, corralled behind curbs, fences, glass. Her photographs represent nature twice tamed — first by the diorama, then by the camera.
In “Band” (2018), three antelope appear to gather calmly in a patch of savanna, but a wall cuts through the image like a seam. Similarly, in “Branch” (2018), taxidermy birds sit in postcard-perfect poses, on an artfully-arranged tree. But at the top of the frame, thanks to a reflection on glass, the museum’s ceiling is visible, reminding us that the photograph — like the diorama — was constructed within rigid constraints. These are depictions of depictions of nature; even the photograph, hanging on the wall of Prospect Range gallery, is behind the glint of glass. Conn’s photographs are modest but thoughtful, encouraging us to pay closer attention to our unnatural relationship to the natural world.
It might seem ironic that two artists working in America’s largest city would attend so obsessively to the details of nature. On the other hand, there’s nothing like the concrete jungle to sensitize you to whatever scraps of nature remain. Gray makes you yearn for green.
This may explain why Bird and Conn borrow the visual language of science. They don’t so much replicate the scientific gaze as suggest a way of looking that can replace it. They tell us to look more closely at the boundary between life and death, between the natural and unnatural. They bring to mind a line by Leonard Cohen: “Like a bird on the wire / like a drunk in some old midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.”