Atlanta-based artist Joseph Peragine belongs to a long list of artists that have found inspiration in the natural history dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. (I’m waiting for similar interest in the dioramas at the LANHM.) His series Kingdom under Glass (2010-2015) is currently on view at the Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta.
In his artist statement, Peragine writes that “the dioramas are like advertisements, or pornography: beautiful, idealized landscapes featuring perfect animal specimens.” His paintings capture the ambivalence of the modern museum-goer who recognizes the conflict in the diorama between its stated mission (appreciation and conservation of wild nature) and its methods (killing, preserving, displaying in an artificial menagerie).
Both mission and method belong to an older conception of natural history, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that has persisted into the present, such that looking at dioramas today is like looking at a vestige of the creation of natural history.
Peragine’s art–stylized, lurid, often self-consciously crude, conscious of the act of viewing–captures the double bind of the visitor to the diorama hall who loves dioramas but whose love is underwritten by a problematic awareness of his embeddedness in structures of thoughts and feelings about nature that seem, today, quaint and remote from our present.
“While most of my classmates gravitated towards the dinosaurs, I was drawn to the dioramas,” Peragine writes of his childhood fascination with dioramas. The perverse focus (or, lack of focus, in the case of Trail of Radiant Light, below) on the medium rather than the message betrays the characteristic ambivalence of the postmodern audience.
The clarity of the original diorama (Gemsboks, left), made possible by a certain naivety with regard to human relationships with the natural world, gives way to a blurriness “informed by years of skepticism” in which “I saw [dioramas] as manipulative and exploitative” rather than conservationist.
I am reminded of another artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s rendition of these same dioramas for his series Dioramas (Damiani 2014). Sugimoto’s photographs of those same dioramas, taken in the 1970s and 80s, similarly play with the friction between present and past nature ideals, as well as between medium and message: the original three-dimensional artifacts set against two-dimensional paintings are flattened out by black-and-white photography that has the odd effect of making them seem “real”–a category that seems to have little stability.
Both artists’ work make explicit what museums regularly try to keep implicit–namely that the museum puts on display both object and a sensibility. And when the sensibility that first made possible a medium of display disappears, we are left with a storehouse of unusual objects without a mind capable of seeing them. Peragine and Sugimoto are in the business of bringing these objects back from the dead, cobbling together a new sensibility from the fragments of an older one. Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of that older vision of nature that these objects continue to fascinate.