New York

Mark Dion

If Charles Willson Peale hadn’t existed, Mark Dion would have had to invent him. Peale—a onetime clocksmith, silversmith, saddler, revolutionary, portraitist, natural historian, inventor, agricultural reformer, and museologist—was a living archetype of the Jeffersonian polymath, embodying the impulse toward conquest through knowledge, categorization, and ratiocination that Dion explores and critiques in his own work. Peale comes to us as a figure in his famous self-portrait of 1822, where he stands before his Wunderkammer (portions of which would later be sold off to P. T. Barnum), raising a plush curtain to expose the illusory order within: shadowboxes, ornithological displays, a fully reconstructed mastodon, and so on. To render the pictorial structure homologous with its subject’s classificatory premise, the illusionism of the foreground gives way to a deeper perspectival system within which the contrived displays and members of the paying public are similarly pinioned. Only Peale as master of his created domain is stationed at a remove from it.

Now Dion has given us his own “portrait of the artist in his museum,” The Curiosity Shop, 2005. Once referred to as a “one-man museum,” Dion here really fabricates one. Taking cues from rural antique stores, Dion has engineered a full-size New England–style lodge brimming with bric-a-brac arranged in highly choreographed if decidedly comical taxonomies. Owing to the structure’s padlocked front door, the viewer—which is to say the perpetually frustrated consumer—is physically excluded from all the assembled stuff, resigned to peer in at the dimly lit space through dusty windows. The static interior thus becomes a contained still life or secular shrine. Even so, the dense menagerie can be parsed if one squints hard enough.

An inventory of the shop’s cabinets reveals Dion’s preoccupations with the senses, elements, and, as he calls it, “the human mind’s understanding of the universe.” Diminutive gardens in terrariums and mushroom-shaped saltshakers stand for the earth, while Greco-Roman deities and Casper the Friendly Ghost figurines invoke the heavens. A section devoted to “artifice” comprises a coffee can of paintbrushes and drawing inks alongside writing utensils. Books piled high on a table visible from the front door include such volumes as Germs, The Bird Watcher’s America, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Then there are the symbolic globes and clocks and, for good measure, a looming synthetic shark, a nautilus shell, a wheelbarrow of stuffed animals, and a red-and-black flannel shirt.

As is always the case with Dion’s work, nothing is accidental. Yet The Curiosity Shop’s ordering functions differently from that of past projects in that Dion, ever the Foucauldian, here turns his gaze on his own work. Less obvious than his inclusion of lockers conceived as an epilogue to his 2004 MoMA commission Rescue Archaeology in the project room are indexes of other works arranged inside the shop itself. The inclusion of several shelves of pesticide dispersal implements alludes to The Museum of Poison, 2000; ornithological paraphernalia and a table of ceramic avian figurines suggest Library for the Birds of Antwerp, 1993, or Urban Wildlife Observation Unit, 2002. These and other references augment the interest of the work with a kind of realism. It’s not just that the difference between edifying institution and entertaining circus (much less between museum storehouse and yard sale) has dissolved, but that it was never really there. Even Peale’s mastodon skeleton—anointed symbol of American prehistory—served most tellingly as the elaborate canopy for a dinner party hosted by his son.

Suzanne Hudson