I love when art intrudes on life,
muscling its way into quotidian events, conveying new significance
to the status quo. The
other day I noticed what appeared to be a couple of twigs stuck to
one side of our back door. Upon closer inspection I discovered our ordinary portal had
become the love nest for a pair of mating mantises. I ran outside every 15 minutes for the next hour, hoping to
be there for the main event.
My sudden attentiveness
to the insect world is thanks to d berman Gallery's recent
exhibition of color photographs by New York-based Catherine Chalmers.
Her 40-by-60 inch chromogenic prints turn the natural world upside
down, causing human viewers to pause and reconsider.
We humans ordinarily pay no attention to nature's mating and
eating games, but when they're presented hundreds of times life size
on a gallery wall, as with the mantises, it's much easier to submit
to prurient voyeurism than to turn away.
Chalmer's photographs both delight and, occasionally, repulse
The dramatic white backdrops Chalmers employs suggest a theatrical
rather than natural setting, jarring the viewer even further, though
the photographer explains that she is simply removing distractions.
Her graphic, theatrically scaled images are much more artful
artifice than natural science.
Back to the mantises: when they finish copulating, Ms. Mantis eats
her partner's face off, and then devours the rest of him.
While I missed the action outside my house, this sequence is
shown explicitly in Sex (during)
/Sex (after). Chalmers
has obtained and sheltered mantises, pinkies (baby mice), snakes,
caterpillars, and frogs, photographing them as they eat, copulate,
and die. "My job
is about 90 percent zookeeping and 10 percent photography," she
says, adding that she does not harm her subjects, as some critics
have suggested. "I
put my energy into raising animals, not hurting them."
I frankly doubt that there is a huge audience ready to live with nature
so exploded in scale and isolated from context.
The rest of us can find Chalmer's "encounters between
mates, predators, and prey” in Food Chain, a book published by Aperture. The book’s images portray a brilliantly colored food chain:
jade green caterpillars eating a juicy red tomato, praying mantis
eating a caterpillar (revealing its juicy red guts), a tarantula eating
a praying mantis, and ... well, you get the point.
Rob Ziebell, a photographer living in Castroville, Texas, offered
somewhat more lyrical nature experiences as a counterpoint to Chalmers's
nature studies. If Chalmers
uses living nature to go for the jugular, Ziebell concentrates on
flora rather than fauna, juxtaposing vegetables and fruit against
richly patterned backgrounds to create settings that are positively
baroque. His portraits
are also displayed much larger than life, in 20by-24 inch and 30-by-40
inch prints; sometimes he carves or cuts his subjects, or arranges
them -in positions that suggest they are doing more than waiting to
become breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Of particular poignancy to me
were twin peas in a huge, single pod presented vertically against
a particularly lush floral print background.
This particular Fuji Supergloss Print inspired me (the mother
of identical twins girls) to return for second and third looks.
In fact, all of Ziebell's color-drenched photos reward close consideration.
They glow with a mysterious light that uncannily highlights
their central images with an otherworldly flame that shines from within.
Hardly natures morts,
his garishly colored arrangements throb with life, albeit life
that appears alien in origin.
Perhaps this facility with lighting can be traced to Ziebell's
experience as a filmmaker (his feature length film,
This State I’m In, has been screened at numerous museums and on
Houston’s PBS affiliate). In
any case, his fruity and veggie "actors and actresses" certainly
suggest characters eager to stand center stage and sing.
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