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New “Curiouser” at Museum of Natural History

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Curiouser and curiouser: new art in a Victorian setting

Driving through the bare trees and ponds in Roger Williams Park on a sunny December Saturday afternoon felt like a drive into a different land where Canadian geese outnumber people.  I was on a mission to find the Natural History Museum to see the latest Curiouser exhibit. After at least one wrong loop around a roundabout, I found this old light colored brick building that was straight out of the Victorian period.  I pushed the large wooden door open and entered a space different from any other than I have been in since arriving in Providence.

The Curiouser exhibit, curated by Erik Carlson and Erica Carpenter, a collaborating couple, is located in the museum’s lobby. The five artists in the yearlong exhibit were selected out of two step process involving an open call requesting images of previous work followed by asking the fifteen semi-finalists submitting proposals describing their work for the exhibit. Carpenter and Carlson selected a group of artists that truly tell stories with their work, which is the vision behind this year’s exhibit. 

New views in a Victorian setting

Each work seemed to work seamlessly into the Victorian lobby.  Notably, the first work to draw me in was the work by Nick and Erin Potter, a young collaborating married couple.  Even though the exhibit channels the words of Alice while she is wandering around Wonderland, this piece reminded me more of the island of Naboombu from the Disney movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks.  “Royal Re-homing Procession” by the Potters is more than taxidermy animals wearing paper crowns; it is also a sad comment on how humans have destroyed the natural habitats of so many animals.  They may have made an outwardly sweet whimsical piece, but they still tell a very compelling contemporary story.  Nick and Erin Potter are actually new to Providence and they could not have asked for a better opportunity to introduce themselves to the community.  Even though they might not be creating as frequently since Nick is enrolled in the literary arts masters program at Brown, I still look forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.  Ironically, curator Erica Carpenter graduated in 1998 from this same program.

Insects as couture

Working counter-clockwise around the lobby, the next work is by another young artist, Judith G. Klausner.  She found a way to sophisticate the same insects we usually aim to rid our homes.  She beaded ants to an evening clutch.  She embroidered a silver centipede to pair of white gloves.  She painted cockroaches onto a vintage teacup and saucer.   Below each accessory for an afternoon tea is the preserved species all from Providence, which may not be welcomed guests for the occasion, but still make you think differently about these common insects. 

Animals under glass

The work of Victor Signore is in the left back corner of the lobby.  Behind a pane of glass, he creates a sort of mortuary with real bricks, cast glycerin bricks, and glass containers.  The bodies of birds and other animals are trapped under the layers of brick, but the work still conveys the feeling of a final resting place, which is both sad and peaceful.  Next to this piece is a filing cabinet.  It would have gone completely un-noticed to be if I was not purposefully looking.  I walked around to the front and thought perhaps I needed to open a drawer, but they were locked.  I decided to walk around to the back of the cabinet and there I found the work of Gina Siepel.  She removed the actual drawers and created a taxidermy bird sanctuary.  I wish the work had been lit from within so I could really see the birds, but like all files stored in a cabinet, they stay in the dark until they are needed.  I did think it was clever that this piece was still hidden even though it was out in the open.    


In the back right corner of the lobby was finally a tie back to Alice in Wonderland.  Inside another cabinet with screen-printed wood is a large white rabbit, hummingbirds, topped with a very big egg and a snakeskin lampshade.  This installation by Pippi Zornoza tied everything back together.  The wall tag also featured a poem of sorts, which also ties back to Wonderland with the characters’ love of word play.  Zornoza’s participation with this exhibit is what originally drew me to visit the Museum in the first place after seeing her beautiful earthy mosaic at the Building Expectation exhibit at the Bell Gallery this past autumn.  Looking inside the cabinet with its obstructed views due to the placement of the wood and glass and items within was a rewarding challenge and the experience was pure delight and discovery, something all of the artists successfully created and allowed within their work.

This exhibit is a wonderful reason to visit the Museum for those who have never been or those who have not been in awhile.  There was something about the entire experience of being in that building that I found inspiring, enlightening, and very soothing.  In fact, it was almost like walking through a looking glass.  I believe Alice would approve. 


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