In a world divided increasingly into smaller and smaller specialties and sub-specialties, the artist Lauren Carrera has staked out an equal and opposite approach to life. Walk into one of her exhibitions of paintings and three-dimensional installations and you enter a composed environment in which time, science, and culture collide and collude, overlapping one another, mixing it up, creating dissonances and unexpected harmonies, as if caught inside some particularly fertile moment of creation.
You might see a flight of what Carrera calls Butt-erflies (handcrafted from discarded cigarette butts) or a miniature pictorial story inside a small glass display case, or a large-scale painting, or even an Ice Age family in a diorama, dressed in fake fur, trekking through a snowscape. Each aspect of the work is playing with and pushing against the impression of the whole: science, art, nature, reality, fantasy, the past and present and perhaps the future, rustling around like impetuous obsessions in an oddly elusive petri dish.
By design, Carrera’s work showing through July 31 in the Newport Visual Arts Center’s exhibition Museo du Profundo Mundo: The Carrera Expedition suggests the Wunderkabinett, or cabinets of curiosity, of the Victorian era, often room-sized hodgepodges of unusual objects designed to astound and delight visitors. Carrera’s exhibit is fundamentally a reimagining of a nineteenth century naturalist’s view of the world, a rethinking of the collections and the often imperialistically driven assumptions of museums, and natural history museums in particular.
“Absolutely. Purposefully,” she says. “I traveled to as many natural history museums as I could to see what made them work.” One of those institutions was the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, in England, founded in 1884 on the gift of the collection of General Augustus Pitt Rivers, who had been influential in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, and whose artifacts gathered from cultures around the globe reflected, sometimes to a fault, the reach and presumptions of the British Empire. The museum’s curators are deeply aware of the collection’s cultural contradictions, and as Carrera does with her own artistic reinventions, strive to reimagine how these shards of history fit together and what they mean in a contemporary world.
Unlike traditional natural history museums, whose collections are replete with the fur and bone of creatures on display, Carrera’s art evokes but does not exploit the natural world. So, for example, the repurposed mannequins turned “New New World” explorers in her three-dimensional display Nuclear Family: Ascent of Man are draped not in fur but in a year’s worth of recycled junk mail and bubble wrap, textured and painted to create the illusion of figures trudging through snow and ice. Most of the dioramas or small assemblages are constructed using found objects. (“No animals were harmed in the expedition.”)
Carrera’s work neatly knits the analytic and intuitive approaches to the observed world, responding to the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow’s famous lament over the “two cultures” – a world in which science and the humanities have become divorced from each other and see the universe in fundamentally different ways. Despite the stereotypes of scientists peering into microscopes and artists waiting to be struck by thunderbolts of inspiration, both rely to a great degree on trial and error. For artists, a mastery of craft and a willingness to make subtle shifts and fresh discoveries are crucial on the journey from original idea to finished artwork.
“I think the domains of science and art are using the same side of the brain,” Carrera declares. “We’ve sort of relegated artists to the right side of the brain. And that just isn’t the case. Scientists and artists are often one and the same. Where things get lost in translation is that artists explore things that are ineffable, that can’t be articulated” – diverging, in that sense, from the quest for measurable results.
Indeed, Carrera began her academic and working careers as a scientist, earning a degree from Rutgers University in psychology as well as fine arts. Her science-to-art journey, she told writer and fellow artist Jeffrey Scherer in a 2021 interview, came as a surprise. “Starting at about the age of 10,” Scherer writes, “Lauren wanted to ‘cure cancer.’ As she says, ‘Throughout college and graduate school, I had always made art as a balance to my studies, and I trained as a painter during college at Rutgers. By the time I went to graduate school, I had refined my sense of direction and chose to pursue a career in psychology with an emphasis on behavioral medicine.”1
Then came a grant to work and study at the Atlin Center for the Arts in northern British Columbia with twenty artists from around the world, and a realization that she could make art informed by science. Much of the art in The Carrera Expedition traverses the mutual territory of science and art in almost mysterious ways, discovering beauties that speak of both.
The richly geometrical paintings in her “Alchemy” series, for instance, which is based on Newton’s work and journals, combine mathematical precision with shimmering color to suggest the vastness of the universe in ways both great and small, as if we might be viewing them through a microscope or a telescope. With the additions of Mason jars in the foreground, some, such as Stardust, suggest the gathering of specimens. A different, more slyly comic sort of gathering takes place in her series Dust Bunnies, specimens of which are dutifully collected and displayed in vitrines. The pieces, Carrera notes, “take a humorous look at Linneas and types of classification, with a special nod to Ward Kimball, one of Walt Disney’s best animators,” who created similarly deadpan displays.
In an undidactic way, Carrera’s art is also partly about equity among cultures and genders. In the rapid scientific development of the nineteenth century, she notes, “women were mostly naturalists and ostracized by the Royal Society.” They were largely relegated to studying the “soft” field of botany, or illustrating botanical life, such as the great, globe-trotting British botanical artist Marianne North, whose work forms a stunning collection at Kew Gardens, in London. When women scientists made important discoveries, they were likely to be nudged aside while men wrote the academic papers. Except for an honorary position held by Queen Victoria, women weren’t allowed membership in the Royal Society until 1945.
“Science as such became a man’s domain,” Carrera says. For a long time that knowledge ate at the edges of her own artwork: “I really struggled with the idea. ‘I’m never going to paint flowers. Ever.’” And yet, like inevitable forces of nature, medicinal flowers, birds, and butt-erflies appear.
The work in The Carrera Expedition is an extension of an exploration she began while living in San Diego and continues in Oregon, where she lives in Portland and maintains a studio at NW Marine Art Works. Some of the current show’s work was created in the past two years, during the cocooning of the Covid pandemic, a time of almost inevitable rethinking of her outlook and work. “I’ve gotten more serious about the focus of the work,” Carrera says, even while “realizing that all of my work still has a sense of humor to it. … The two years have really given me clarity about what’s important in my life. I need more time for my art. I’ve gotten much more disciplined about my studio time, and much more disciplined about what I’m chipping away from my life.”
Her exhibition in the Newport Visual Arts Center, she says, is meant to evoke a unified environment, offering viewers “a complete immersion into the Carrera Expedition to the New New World … to evoke the feeling one might have in a natural history museum.” She thinks of it as something akin to a naturalist’s tent, out in the field, with a desk in it, a cot, and room to study and display newly found artifacts. Taking advantage of the gallery’s exposed woodwork and its view over the Pacific Ocean, she’s aimed for a sense of rawness, and perhaps provisionality, to the extent of removing frames from some of her paintings.
Whatever else might be going on – and there’s a lot – an undercurrent of humor and playfulness remains in Carrera’s work, often built on a sense of something pleasurably out of place. It all fits, if at odd and mind-tickling angles. “You can think of my show as a large wonder cabinet,” she says. “A group of artifacts both fantastic and imagined. I try to create beauty so that people will feel a sense of wonder and want to ponder for a little while.”
- 1Jeffrey Scherer, “Artist Profile, Lauren Carrera,” Portland Studios newsletter, February 2021.
- This essay was written for the catalog to Lauren Carrera’s exhibition Museo du Profundo Mundo: The Carrera Expedition, running June 4-July 31, 2022, at the Newport Visual Arts Center in Newport, Oregon, and is published here with permission. The art center is at 777 N.W. Beach Drive, on the Nye Beach turnaround.
- Hear about the exhibition firsthand: Lauren Carrera will give an in-gallery artist’s talk about Museo du Profundo Mundo at the Newport Visual Arts Center at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 25.