The Pleasure of Being Fooled
Tim Rodgers, Ph.D., Chief Curator the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico
I asked to visit Colette Hosmer’s studio in Santa Fe after her most recent trip to China. She had been an artist in residence in Xiamen last year working on a new body of art that involved the talented craftspeople of China: stone-carvers, porcelain makers, bronze foundry workers. Covering her dining room table were approximately thirty bronze pigtails. The fireplace surround had been re-designed with bright pink porcelain “bricks” molded from pig’s teats. The wall had a swarm of goat’s heads cast in porcelain covered with a slick glaze. And dotting the room were fish-halves and slippery, intertwined eels in stone and plastic.
Upstairs in her studio were large spheres completely covered in carefully preserved minnows. A closet contained the bones of a raccoon that had been transformed into a marionette that walked on its hind-feet. And everywhere skeletons of snakes and other animals hung from the ceilings. Hosmer explained that these were the results of a colony of beetles that she kept to eat the flesh off of dead animals. Welcome to the world and art of Colette Hosmer.
Despite Hosmer’s true immersion in, and fascination with, nature, and my park-informed view, we immediately bonded over our shared childhoods in North Dakota. Hosmer grew-up in northern North Dakota ( yes, even North Dakota is divided between the north and the south), and I spent my teenage years in the south. Nonetheless, in a state that never has more than a quarter of a million people, we felt we had been neighbors. Second-cousins, perhaps, divided like the characters in Willa Cather’s My Antonia by large banks of shifting snow.
Hosmer, however, grew-up in rural North Dakota, a culture steeped in farming and livestock. Deep relationships develop among people, animals and plants in such an environment, and Hosmer would contend that it is this interplay that still informs her work. Her connection to nature is so deep that when asked in China if she had ever worked in the fields, she said she had. Gardens and fields may not be the same, but both contain soil that nurtures life under the care of the person tending. These elemental relationships link Hosmer to the Chinese farmer, the animal raised for slaughter, the fish that swims across oceans, and the lush flowers and simple foods that make-up a still life.
Between Hosmer’s childhood in North Dakota and her trip to China, she forged a distinguished career in the arts. She has been awarded five previous residencies in China to produce large-scale sculptures that remain in public spaces throughout the country. Eighteen museum exhibitions and eleven solo exhibitions are listed on her resume. But the breadth of her work is hard to appreciate fully. Canning jars molded from naturally colored earth, the human torso created out of pennies, snow globes filled with once living mammals, and swirling arcs of minnows that stream out of the wall, these are just some of her many works of art.
Hosmer produced a body of work in the 1990s infused with her love of both nature and art. In homage to the great still-life painters of the Baroque period (c. 1620-1700), Hosmer created three-dimensional versions of these dramatic images. Working with cast materials and actual items, the sculpted still lifes may present, for example, the carcass of a goose cast in bronze and meticulously painted and both a false and a real orange arranged together on a table. Dramatic lighting creates deep shadows and bright highlights that help transform these items into works of art.
The artist’s desire to trick the viewer into believing that what they are seeing is “real” is at the heart of Baroque art. One of the great artists of this period, the Italian painter Caravaggio, displayed his works behind curtains that were dramatically pulled aside to reveal a scene that appeared to be part of the viewer’s world. People still have such moments of astonishment in front of Baroque paintings that appear so amazingly life-like that the flowers seem to scent the air.
When the opportunity to present a significant selection of Baroque still-life paintings from the Medici Collections was offered to the Museum of Fine Arts (see sidebar), I immediately began to think about how we could incorporate Hosmer’s work into the exhibition. The desire to combine contemporary art with the art of the past is something I explored in the exhibition of Edgar Degas’ sculptures. Because the boundry between contemporary and historical art is arbitrary and constantly in flux, I prefer to mix art from the past and present that links together because of shared ideas. In this case, the affinity between the Baroque painters in the exhibition and Hosmer is extremely apparent despite the fact that they lived hundreds of years apart.
To make the exhibition more enjoyable for the viewer, I decided to ask Hosmer to sculpt specifically for our exhibition an exact duplicate of one of the paintings. The museum rarely commissions artists to create work both for an exhibition and for the permanent collection. The museum had long hoped to add a significant work by Hosmer to the collection, however, and it was agreed that this would be a perfect moment. Hosmer has been working on the sculpture for the exhibition for almost a year, and at the beginning of March we both went to view the painting she chose to duplicate in three-dimension. She chose one of the best: Fish and Crustaceans, an oil painting from c. 1630 attributed to Jacopi da Empoli. The painting displays various types of fish and crabs, representing the bounty of nature. Given the fact that Hosmer has produced a whole body of work that involved thousands of preserved minnows, I was not surprise that she decided to re-create a work that presents marine life.
Once finished, this three dimensional work will be presented next to the actual painting with the hope that at first glance the sculpture will appear to be the painting and vice versa. To create this illusion Hosmer is working closely with exhibition designer John Tinker who is helping to design the necessary stage and lighting. Although there will not be a curtain that viewers can pull aside, it is hoped that those who attend the exhibition will gasp when they recognize how their eyes have been fooled.
Acknowledging the pleasures and delights of the senses is the raison d’etre for this exhibition. This seems appropriate for a languid Santa Fe summer filled with art, food, and the blessings of nature.
These are some of the subjects of the Baroque still life paintings that will be presented in the exhibition Natura Morta: Still-Life Painting and the Medici Collections.
All of the art in the exhibition is from Italian museums including the Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Academia, both in Florence. For the most part, the paintings in the exhibition were acquired by the Medici family, the famous patrons of the renaissance and Baroque periods. The Medici family was large and had among its members Lorenzo the Magnificent, Pope Clement VII, and Grand Duke Cosimo II. Most of the family involved itself in collecting art, and one type of painting favored by many was the still life.
Still life painting developed in northern Europe but through the influence of the Italian painter Caravaggio, among others, spread to southern Europe during the period 1620-1700. This type of painting usually presented highly desirable fruits, vegetables, meats, and other objects to be consumed or admired. The purposes for such paintings were numerous. Some of the images contained reminders of the fragility and brevity of life. Watches that had stopped, glasses broken after being bumped, flowers slight;ly past their prime, these were common symbols meant to remind viewers of the presence of death in the midst of abundant life. Other paintings, however, seem to hold no such tales of mortality, instead only presenting the bounty and splendor of nature to be enjoyed. These paintings were often highly prized for their decorative qualities, and as a result, were framed in impressive craved, gold and inlayed frames.
Another lesser known purpose for still life paintings relates to their ability to serve as scientific records. In an age before photography, painters were often seen as scientists as much as artists. Their ability to record nature in all of its exactitude helped people to understand the natural world and aided in attempts to impose order upon it. For example Filippo di Liagno’s beautiful painting, Two Citrons, 1618, presents two views of a citron that could serve a botanist trying to classify different types of fruits. Even today, botanists who are interested in heirloom varieties of plants look at early still life paintings to understand what was growing hundreds of years ago.
Contemporary viewers may not fully appreciate the science and morality that inform these paintings. They will, however, still be impressed by the artist’s ability to make a two-dimensional object look three-dimensional. Although we have seen many examples of paintings that fool the eye, nonetheless, it is still a highly enjoyable experience to confront a painting that makes you believe that the objects depicted are real. As noted in my article on Colette Hosmer’ art, this will be an aspect of the exhibition that will be enhance by the inclusion of sculpture pieces.
In the Baroque period the ability to trick the eye was still something novel and difficult to master. As such, paintings that merely depicted two citrons, for example, served science in different ways: one, as a record of the plant , and, two, as a test for how the eye understands and translates the world around us from three dimension to two dimension and back. This eye--mind relationship continues to provoke scientists who probe the brain to understand how information from the eye is processed, stored and retrieved.
The Museum of Fine Arts promises not to probe the brains of the viewers of Natura Morta. We only hope to provide a moment for lingering over fruit dripping with morning dew, flowers bursting into life, and fish damp with salted water.