In the wake of the Age of Exploration and the Enlightenment in the 16th-century, wealthy Europeans began encyclopedic collections of natural, manmade, and artificial objects. As collectors amassed exotic and precious objects—ostrich eggs, “unicorn” horns, and pieces of coral were especially popular—they organized them in complex, multi-compartmental cabinets, and sometimes entire rooms, known as Kunstkammern, Wunderkammern, or Cabinets of Curiosity. In Heiner Contemporary’s new exhibition “CURIO”, contemporary artists re-envision the concepts behind Cabinets of Curiosity, considering the desirable qualities of a collectible object and methods of ordering and displaying objects within a confined space.
Gathering works by Christine Gray, Sue Johnson, Caitlin Teal Price, Olivia Rodriguez, Esther Ruiz, and Julie Wolfe, “CURIO” offers a dynamic variety of paintings, photographs, and sculptures, each a reflection of a collectible object or a miniature collection. Christine Gray’s paintings feature traditional kunstkammer contents and works of art, arranged on modern shelves, a network of small pedestals, and in museum-like vitrines. Esther Ruiz takes a more abstract approach, creating her own artifacts, small cylindrical sand and cement sculptures painted in bright colors with pieces of glass and precious stones. Julie Wolfe offers a scientific approach in Test Project, a wheeled-cart packed with jars of colorful liquids containing plant, animal, and insect extractions. Caitlin Teal Price focuses on the objects being collected with her photographs of taxidermy bird specimens from The Peabody Museum at Yale University. Olivia Rodriguez works in a similar vein, creating incredibly realistic artificial plants and taxidermy through a combination of foam, flock, wax, paper pulp, and glitter, in order to reference the violence and delicacy of nature.
American contemporary artist Sue Johnson has been working in this vein for many years in her paintings, while also incorporating still life and vanitas traditions. She presents a series of gouache and watercolor paintings of dynamic, imagined shelving units filled with artworks and invented objects. Her Entertainment Cabinet works resemble robots, with TV game show objects and television screens dynamically arranged within the futuristically shaped shelves. Red Round Shelf offers a more traditional approach, imagining a large circular shelf with perfectly sized compartments for artistic and historical objects that magically float inside. Johnson has a show of related work on view now in American Dreamscape at the Wilson Museum at Hollins University.
“CURIO” is on view at Heiner Contemporary, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 4, 2014.