Janice Caswell

NY Arts

Vol. 8, No. 6-8, July/August 2003

‘Full House’ at the Aldrich Museum

By L.P. Streitfeld

As the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary breaks ground, a 22 foot fallen tree lives under glass in the original structure. “Vivarium” means many things. For one, the tree is an ancient symbol for life. For another, a tree with live insects crawling through it symbolizes the merging of art and natural science in the 21st century. Finally, the tree is a symbol of the curatorial experimentation that has defined the Aldrich Museum since the 18th century house was converted into an exhibition venue for the contemporary art in 1964.
In the exhibition planned for this summer, “A River Half Empty: Artists Engage in Connecticut’s Environment,” the museum will continue to move beyond the myopic art world to address broader concerns of the 21st century.

“Mark Dion: Full House” fills the entire original part of the building with an eccentric and engaging display of the numerous preoccupations and roles inhabited by an environmentally oriented artist who blurs boundaries between science, art and natural history. This artist’s extreme investigation into narrative arises in a personal mythology fueled by extreme dedication to process.

Meanwhile, Janice Caswell’s new work, installed in the second floor Micro Gallery, is another superb sign that the Aldrich remains dedicated to this movement that pushes narrative back into the art world. This intimate space is filled with iconic maps of a life’s journey catalogued on a white background with the aid of hole-punched paper, collage, marker, acrylic and pins. As an orderly pattern arises out of apparent chaos in this artist’s recording of personal movement, the linear transforms into the cyclical. This lyrical vision of aliveness achieves the difficult feat of simultaneously reflecting and transcending a personal accounting of time and place. When an artist takes back the gallery space to relate a personal journey that resonates on a universal plane of abstraction akin to musical composition, viewers become participants in the evolution of art into a new century.

Mark Dion has long pioneered the presentation of natural science in the art gallery, along with establishing venues for his art in natural history museums. The artist was recipient of the 2001 Larry Aldrich Foundation Award that provides a monetary grant along with this solo exhibition.

At the core of Dion’s art are the curiosity cabinets on view in the second floor gallery. These meticulous displays of archeological and natural objects inspired much of Dion’s personal drawings, many of which are on exhibit for the first time. Dion is a fine draftsman and meticulous record keeper, as documented by photos, scrapbooks and notebooks (including journals from 1990 to the present) in this exhibition. Utilizing a talent for drawing as a communication tool while working abroad, the artist developed a cartoon language. This iconography of biological record keeping is threaded through the work, uniting the personal with the universal while examining the role that museums play in the presentation and interpretation of the natural world.

A 1994 installation, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” depicts the manner in which the pop culture both portrays and exploits nature for consumerism. The installation is a child’s bedroom taken over by dinosaurs. They are on the bedspread, the wallpaper, calendars, stamps, poster, plastic toys, stuffed animals and every sort of container.

Another room holds “Library for the Birds of Connecticut.” Bird skeleton prints made directly from X-rays are the most beautiful images in the exhibition. The branches of a tree hold a library with books such as “The Web of Life” and “Man: An Endangered Species.” His son’s camouflage jacket hangs from a branch. On the walls are images of birds that run afoul of people, birds that have been mended and camouflage bird paintings.

The totality of “Full House” is an artist’s meaningful penetration into a chosen field of investigation that transcends considerations of artistic medium or style. This holistic journey goes a long way towards producing a narrative of a transcendent personal mythology that brings the scientist within the artist to the fore.

In following this self-reflecting passage, the artist pays homage to his heroes even as he criticizes the manner that they have been presented to the public. A gallery displays portraits of 18th and 19th century naturalists, yet “The Delirium of Alfred Russell Wallace” is a curiosity not to be found in either a natural history museum or an art gallery. The installation attempts to duplicate the environment of the naturalist in the jungles of Asia – complete with hammock, stove and a stuffed fox. This unique form of storytelling communicates an introspective narrative of identification where sculpture and artifact overlap.

It would seem that “Full House” is one artist’s response to historical developments that legitimized the artifact as art. Free from the constraints of labeling his creative process, Dion organizes objects in a manner that serves his own investigations rather than previously established structures. In successfully blurring the boundary between art, natural history and science, Dion is free to operate in the manner he pleases in the gray area he has carved out for his unique creations.

Investigation of cultural agenda has never been more essential than it is today, a time when the paradigm is visibly shifting and ingrained systems are subject to uncertainty. For example, a stuffed polar bear above a shipping crate serves as a metaphor for the traffic of artwork even as it is presented as an artwork ready for trafficking. This brings us to the pertinent message of this exhibition. The art world is collapsing boundaries between science and art through the greater use of technology in creation.The unfortunate result is a reinforcement of the alienation that technology has created in the culture. The effect of “Full House” is just the opposite. By bringing nature inside the art museum, we feel even more alive.