New York

“The Naturalist Gathers”


In its arrangement of images that span the history of art, and film stills, book illustrations, postcards, and advertisements, “The Naturalist Gathers” presented a genealogy of the process of collecting, ordering, and observing. Devoid of “original” artworks, this fabric of pictures portrayed the world as a chain of mediated representations, illuminating how we organize experience and construct an “archaeology of knowledge.” Composed of materials from curator Douglas Blau’s own collection, this picture gallery within a gallery became something akin to an encyclopedic vanitas, filled with images of libraries, museums, archives, and still lifes. It evoked the mystical materialism of Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library,” 1931, in which he designates collectors as the “physiognomists of the world of objects,” and suggests that a collection is not merely an inventory but more significantly a place where, through the individual’s absorption in the object as a magic fetish of memory, history might be “unpacked.”

“The Naturalist Gathers” asked that we relinquish our stubborn attachment to distinguishing between the original and its reproduction, between art-historical material and popular culture. Since a collection is also always a study in display tactics, the emphasis here was upon a nonhierarchical survey of the phenomenal world’s self-representations, evidenced by Blau’s skillful yet radical transhistorical juxtapositions. Installed in two rooms, each with a somewhat distinct thematic resonance, the hundreds of images were uniformly outfitted in simple black frames and hung in narrow, salon-style bands of pictorial information that wrapped around the walls.

The main installation opened with a reproduction of Charles Wilson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum, 1822, beckoning the viewer into the fictive realm of his collection, and by extension, into the exhibition itself. Proceeding clockwise around this multifaceted panorama of pictures, a subtle logic—a unique kind of visual intertextuality—emerged. Carpaccio’s Saint Jerome, ca. 1502, a still from the ’60s science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage, 1966, a magazine photo of scientists pondering objects (undoubtedly lifted from a National Geographic), and a well-known shot of Marcel Duchamp engrossed in a game of chess, all occupied the same domain because they described related object-oriented activities. Further on, we encountered a Thomas Struth photo of museum-goers near an image of people in the dinosaur hall of a natural history museum, while a picture of André Malraux in his “Imaginary Museum” lurked nearby. At this point, pictures of archives, libraries, World’s Fair Pavilions, Exposition Halls—including a Fred Wilson counter-ethnology museum display—and small commercial venues like apothecaries began to supersede representations of individuals or groups. Finally, we reentered more privatized domains of collection and study, in which a Mark Dion eco-crisis work station, a shot of Freud’s study, an image of the Sir John Soanes Museum, among other room-sized still lifes (or rooms as still lifes), interacted. Upstairs, a smaller installation focused upon myriad permutations of the still life, mixing images from sacred and profane sources. “The Naturalist Gathers” reconstructed both history and the present as a collection of representational fragments that reverberated against one another, mirroring our rituals of looking and ordering.

Joshua Dector