11.10.17 — Unnatural History

It takes a big imagination to recreate a museum of natural history in a storefront gallery. Barring that, one might have to settle for eclectic interests and a healthy skepticism.

Under the guise of Future Retrieval, Guy Michael Davis and Katie Parker may not produce a museum. Yet they should have one pondering what they leave out. Their adopted name promises a time capsule, but for an age of data retrieval as automatic and impersonal as a museum Web site. Is the future already present?

For once, one cannot look for an answer from the street. A wood frame supports a curved wall barring views through the window. That seems only right. For a native New Yorker like me, the American Museum of Natural History holds not sunlit habitats, but darkened rooms and the chambers of memory. Inside, at Denny through November 12, things are bright enough—like the white cube of a proper art gallery or museum. It should be more than bright enough to dispel childish misconceptions.

The curved wall holds a diorama, but pretty much free of people or natural histories. It looks like a single scene, but with sudden discontinuities in content and color. Never mind, though, because the missing specimens stand on pedestals, including a wild bobcat and a rhesus monkey. Not that they make sense side by side either. The diorama has elements of the American west and old Europe, as if the Hudson River School and Nicolas Poussin in Rome were fighting over property and antiquities. The animals belong only to art.

For one thing, they are not stuffed but ceramic. In fact, a patterning more typical of glazed porcelain covers the bobcat. They also seem to have stepped right out of the domesticated wilds of a Rococo garden for Jean Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher. A finch on another pedestal is drinking from an urn more appropriate to a period room at the Frick. Then again, the diorama has the neutral background typical of a Chinese landscape, but with no room for calligraphy or weather. It, too, is a product of information retrieval.

The artists are engaged both in sampling and erasure. They bill themselves as ceramicists, but the ceramics end there. Other vases appear on the facing walls, Rococo decoration intact, but solely in cut paper. The diorama is cut paper, too. The wild animals could have stepped out of either or neither one. The whole display seems waiting for a museum curator to fill in the gaps.

The artists also boast of their care in sampling and reconstructing species from an actual natural history museum. That may sound odd, given that old ceramics and old museums alike took real work, with the digital as a suspect shortcut. As one exits, the wood frame seems more like a deconstruction of the scene within, and a few more urns sit on the floor beside it, but in wood. Rather than science or the imagination, they offer the lesser solace of a sense of humor. Has art lost access to the objectivity of a mirror of nature along with the fabled originality of the avant-garde? There may be limits even to future retrieval.

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