Humans on the move, profoundly

Lauren Carrera's gallery-size art installation at Blackfish is an odditorium of seductive specimens that asks, Where are we going?

Walk into Museo du Profundo Mundo presents: THE ASCENT OF MAN, Lauren Carrera’s remarkable gallery-sized installation at Blackfish Gallery that closes Saturday, and you’ll find yourself in another world – very like the one you’ve just left on the street outside but skewed, reshaped, its ordinary objects out of scale and oddly juxtaposed, as if you’ve entered an odditorium of a natural history museum where time speeds up and implications drip like dew in a primeval forest. You get the sense that you’re someplace ancient and recent and yet to come, a museum of cause and unintended effect. Is this where we were? Is this where we’re going?

The long human voyage: detail from Nuclear Family: Ascent of Man.

It’s an odd sensation, a mixture of dread and delight. Profundo Mundo has an almost steampunkish affection for the antiquarian, extending even to the language in its explanatory statements on the walls. “Museo du Profundo Mundo: The Carrera Expedition,” the opening plaque declares, and then continues:

Inspired by the scientists & naturalists of the Enlightenment & the art patrons whose collections formed the bases for the world’s great museums – the Ashmolean, Smithsonian, Hunterian, Guggenheim, etc. – the Carrera Expedition embarked upon a journey to distant realms & outposts, inhabited & uninhabited. The Carerra Expedition sought to investigate, explore, record, capture & collect that which would evoke memories of the wonder and awe of sights encountered.

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The Museo du Profundo Mundo has assembled for display, in the spirit of the great collectors and their cabinets of curiosity, these exotic specimens and wondrous renderings of this New World. You are invited to join in the exploration, to navigate with care, to observe with a keen eye and a curious mind.

We’ve entered, then, a kind of one-person museum of humankind, couched in the assumptions and display techniques of an emerging optimistic scientific age, when progress was assumed, and assumed to be good. Carrera did a similar installation under the same title a few years ago in San Diego, in a 4,500-square-foot building in a former Naval Training Center. “In San Diego I had the idea originally to do a museum,” she told me in an email exchange. “I went to as many natural history museums as I could to see what I might accomplish. … Over two years I turned it into a ‘natural history museum’ with … a contemporary take on the naturalist experience.”

At Blackfish, where the paintings, wall displays, and museum-like dioramas are mostly new for this exhibition (except for the large central diorama, which was in the San Diego version, and a scattering of other objects that have been seen elsewhere but under different circumstances), the “contemporary take” brings a feeling of foreboding at odds with the optimism of the exhibition’s scientific-display predecessors. Rather than celebrating humankind’s growing knowledge and triumph over the obstacles of nature, or the sort of fictional symbiosis between man and evolved beast celebrated in James Gurney’s Dinotopia, Carrera’s museum suggests a growing malaise with the long-term effects of the human touch: species disappearing, habitats degraded, conquerors gradually sensing that it is they, perhaps, who have become the conquered. A disharmony, a sense of malfunction, reigns. And yet, within the confines of its museum fiction, Museo du Profundo Mundo remains a beautiful thing.

The “Alchemy” wall: antique scale, geometric paintings, sardine tin and a tiny tale of the sea.

Dotted around the gallery are little dioramas in small vitrines, meticulously constructed scenes from life in fictional cultures and territories. One wall, labeled “Alchemy,” includes two large paintings of vague landscapes overlaid with elegant geometric shapes. Below and between them, on a pedestal, sits an antique scale holding a vitrine containing tiny toy figures of men surrounding a much larger fish emerging from a roll-top sardine tin: a sea of life industrialized and overcome by relative gnats.

Another vitrine, depicting the Garden of Eden, shows a curious mashup of 1950s utopianism about to meet its end: a young couple on the verge of entering a derelict museum building, some kids on the street, where an apple has rolled, and toy urban soldiers on the museum roof, attack rifles drawn, moving in. Hopping from diorama to diorama we see a giant toy soldier seated on a stack of bound books below the carved faces of Mt. Rushmore, a tiny group of picknickers or tourists below. In another vitrine, labeled “Three Ring Circus,” a trilogy of views, layered like eons of rock at an archaeological dig, greets us: below, trapped in carved-out underground burrows, an elephant, a lion cub, and a lion; above them, a decrepit farm scene, with cows at pasture, a big red farmhouse tilting into a sinkhole, a group of men in suits peering down a hole at the trapped wild animals below; on the top, a black-and-white image of a boy staring fascinated into an ant farm.

One large wall is lined in colorful rows with mounted butterfly and moth figures, pinned and made part of a collection. There’s a serene, formal, attractive elegance to the display, called “First Responders,” and an undercurrent of unease: Each of the “first responders” represents an actual endangered species. Around a corner some rabbits sit on a shelf. In the gallery’s window display, which you can see from the sidewalk outside, a baby hangs wrapped in a chrysalis, waiting transformation into something newer and better.

“Our Town”: buried knowledge, retooled trash, ladders to scale.

A sense of loss, of stumbling across a dead or dying civilization, is palpable in a fascinating construction called “Our Town,” which sits, like “Three Ring Circus,” on three levels, each connected in this case by a long white ladder to the next level up, like cliffside pueblos. On the bottom are stacks of old books bundled in twine and glowing strangely in an encaustic cover of wax. You can make out some of the words. “WIND SHEAR: Harper Paperbacks,” one reads. Another is titled “Something Wicked.” A third shows a city grid map, in black and white. Up the ladder your eye climbs to the next level, a model of a small industrial town, with water towers and an Esso oil holding tank. The second ladder rises above the town, into a cloud-puffed sky. “In ‘Our Town,’ with my trash clouds generated from my own trash as I was doing the show, I am alluding to mazes, with the books covered in encaustic and salt,” Carrera said, “but also alluding to the Alexandrian library, which provided a world center for knowledge and yet, over time, due to lack of funding, war, and indifference, lost that knowledge.”

Nuclear Family, trudging forward to … what?

All of this revolves around the exhibition’s inevitable attractor, the giant diorama The Nuclear Family: Ascent of Man. It’s a crisp and luscious stage set, riveting for its sense of peril and bravery and seductive design. Rather than representing a series of evolutionary leaps forward on the family tree, as in Darwin-inspired drawings, Carrera’s Ascent visualizes an arduous family trek, through daunting territory and formidable weather, with no clear end in sight. They’re bundled head to toe in form-fitting white costumes that are nubbled as if crocheted. They carry gathered firewood over rocks and snow, hunching forward, hopefully, toward an unknown future, children both cared for and expected to hold their own. It’s a determined struggle to stay fit and survive, at least another day. After that? Who knows? – struggle and, perhaps, survive again. It’s a mystery.

And a mystery, it must be said, of beauty, shaped from abandoned things. The figures in Carrera’s nuclear family, she says, “are repurposed mannequins covered with one year’s worth of recycled junk mail. … I hand-painted the faces. The outfits are made from bubble wrap from my studio. Painted of course. The snow is a variety of kinds of snow, one of them being outside snow that is actually wet and slippery and can be made into snowballs. The birds are covered with newspaper and burned, alluding to the results of the fires this year.”

What to make of all this? Is it a museum of distress, or regret, or hope, or warning, or missed opportunities, or misconstrued assumptions, or overreaching, or the romance of human endeavor? Perhaps a little of each, all balled up in that strange solace we call beauty. It takes some wandering, and looking, and wandering some more, to let it all sink in. Unfortunately its days of wandering, which began April 30, are drawing to an end: The show closes on Saturday, June 1. Wander quickly, while you can.

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  • Museo du Profundo Mundo presents: THE ASCENT OF MAN continues through Saturday, June 1, at Blackfish Gallery, 420 N.W. Ninth Ave., Portland. Opening June 4 and continuing through June 29 at the gallery: Manila to PDX/Exploratory Drawings: Palmarin Merges, and Blackfish Members Drawing Show.

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