Kingdom Under Glass
Ongoing— The title Kingdom Under Glass comes (in part) from a biography of taxidermist-explorer Carl Akeley titled Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the Worlds Great Animals by Jay Kirk. Carl Akeley is considered by many the most important taxidermist that ever lived and the father of the natural history diorama. His life’s crowning achievement was the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC that was completed post-mortem when he unexpectedly died while on safari in Belgium Congo collecting specimens for the museum exhibits. The Akeley Hall of African Mammals is a two-story hall featuring 28 dioramas that depict in meticulous detail the great range of ecosystems found in Africa and the mammals endemic to them. Together with the beautifully painted background scenes these dioramas give the viewer the sense that they are looking through a window into the natural world.
It is apt that the title of my exhibit references Akeley as the initial work in this series is directly inspired by dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History. I used to visit this museum often as a child on school trips. While most of my classmates gravitated towards the dinosaurs, I was drawn to the dioramas. Returning many years later with my own children was a strange experience. The aesthetic appeal of the dioramas had not diminished, but informed by years of skepticism I saw them as manipulative and exploitative. By that I mean, the dioramas are like advertisements, or pornography: beautiful, idealized landscapes featuring perfect animal specimens, primped and posed. This prompted me to learn more about the history of their making, which only reinforced this view. The prevailing sentiment at the time was that the endeavor of creating the dioramas was a way of educating the public and acting as stewards of the environment. Though, even when they were made in the 1920-40’s the animals and environments were in peril, often from excessive hunting. Akeley himself believed most of the environments and the animals found in them would be gone within 25 years. His goal was to get the skins before the animals went extinct. The irony, what I hope is evident in my work, is that despite this knowledge and an aversion to the method in which came into being, I still love these displays and remain drawn to them as an adult.
All the work was developed through direct observation and hundreds of photographs of taxidermy animals on display in museums. Although the animal is central in the work, I am also interested in representing both the illusionary and actual space that the animal occupies and placing the viewer outside that space. To this end, the work includes a reference to box that contains the animal, reflections off the glass barrier and/or other obstructions that veil our view. In this way the paintings have a circular aspect to them. The work becomes a meditation on the way we encounter nature and highlight our distance from truly experiencing it.