An Archive, A Forest: John Bell, Ginny Maki, and Branden Martz at the Bell Museum of Natural Histor.y

Written By: Thomas O. Haakenson Constellation 08 6.1.10

By Tom Haakenson

Observation is not objectivity, a claim which may appear obvious to some, sacrilegious to others. Yet historians of science such as Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison have argued convincingly that the history of Science’s supposedly unadulterated observations reveals just how subjective “objectivity” can be. Intended or not, the exhibition of John Bell’s, Ginny Maki’s, and Branden Martz’s artistic works at the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus reveals the fallacy of scientific objectivity as well.

Daston and Gallison’s studies in the history of objectivity demonstrate that the (historically) recent development of the photograph and other supposedly non-subjective inscription devices in the last two centuries provided hope that a form of mechanical objectivity—objectivity based on mechanical devices and thus “certified free of human interference”—might alleviate concerns with scientists’ own sensory perceptions.[1] In a separate article, Daston suggests that another form of observation, which she describes as “aperspectival objectivity,” is supposedly “about eliminating individual (or occasionally group, as in the case of national styles or anthropomorphisms) idiosyncracies.”[2] She also notes, importantly, that “the essence of aperspectival objectivity is communicability, narrowing the range of genuine knowledge to coincide with that of public knowledge.”[3]

Given the historical variability of what constitutes genuine, public knowledge with respect to Science, it is no surprise that among the most provocative aspects of the work of John Bell, Ginny Maki, and Branden Martz is the challenge these artists and their creations pose for the viewer: Are they making Art or are they making Science? And key to this confusion is the role of observation.

The viewer’s own observation of Bell’s, Maki’s, and Martz’s work is complicated—in a fascinating, thoughtful way—by the artists’ decision to display their creations interspersed with objects from the Bell Museum’s permanent collection. Taken as separate works made by individual creators, these pieces demonstrate a reflective engagement with the science of Art. The Bell Museum exhibition, An Archive, A Forest, goes further, confusing “real” science with the delicious illusion and allusion of aesthetic artifice, revealing that there is indeed an art—and perhaps an artifice—to Science as well.

In juxtaposing their creations with the various objects in the Bell Museum’s exhibition space, the three artists seek to “disrupt the narrative that their work holds independently.”[4] They hope to “create connections between their own processes and the objects in the Bell . . .”[5] Their works, seen intermingled with the Bell Museum’s own collection, promise to tell viewers a different story about Art. A different story about Science.  In 1959, C.P. Snow famously described Science and Art as, in effect, two distinct cultures. Bell, Maki, and Martz suggest a different story about the relationship between Science and Art in the twenty-first century, one that focuses on the ways in which members of both supposedly separate cultures use observation to reveal unique truths about the world, about the human condition, about us.

John Bell, who is not related to the Bell Museum’s namesake, creates animalistic watercolors—such as Getting Theirs (2009) and Thanksgiving (2009)—that reveal a meticulous painterly process, one which forefronts animal and reptilian motion through the facade of abstract stasis. Layering watercolor on a synthetic paper surface that allows for swift removal of the wet paint, Bell creates images that have the opaque heaviness of oil or acrylic while retaining the translucent, fleeting quality indicative of watercolor. Bell textures the wet paint using various objects and surfaces to create an additional layer to the works. The results are deceptive—and amazingly so. Blurred browns and grays take on the appearance of animals in motion. Clusters of green and red suggest blood-stained grass. But, importantly, identifiable forms remain allusive in many of Bell’s images. The viewer must decipher a visual suggestion, one whose message is further complicated by the elaborate processes and materials that Bell uses. The clean surface of the canvas that surrounds many of the images only exacerbates the sense of cessation, of an object, or thing, or animal caught in the passionate, agonizing throws of life—or the ends of it. Yet, Bell’s work is by no means a fascination with death. It might best be described as a fascination with the processes of life that prove too ephemeral to capture on canvas, on film, on paper.

While John Bell uses abstraction to suggest a moment in the process of life, Ginny Maki introduces abstraction to suggest life as yet unseen. Maki’s “underwater photographs”—including Killdeer Lake (2009) and Montreal River (2009)—present us with a study of surface through an engagement in depth, suggesting the beauty forgotten in the scientific practice of water sampling. Simultaneously ecological art and aesthetic intervention, but by no means an artist’s conscious attempt to “challenge” Science, Maki’s photographs, like John Bell’s paintings, often pursue abstraction as a method of engagement and intervention. The blur of the fleeting animal witnessed in Bell’s paintings find a poetic parallel in the often-microscopic aquatic life captured in the stasis of Maki’s photographs. While the former speak to the sensorial cessation achieved through painting-as-photograph, the latter speak to the invisible presence of life, a sort of photograph-as-painting, ironically captured through that most visible of media. Maki extends her photographic engagement with “invisible life” to her sculptures as well, often collecting samples from the waters she photographs. These samples, captured in clear glass jars and labeled with a scientific-like accuracy, eventually show layers of sedimentation and occasionally give form to aquatic plants whose seedlings were floating, invisibly, in the samples Maki collects. Life, these two artists would seem to suggest, is not easily captured. Science needs Art, and Art can speak to and with Science.

If John Bell and Ginny Maki turn at times toward abstraction to reveal Science’s and Art’s problematic—and productive—engagement with life and with nature, Martz turns toward history and hyperrealism to achieve these same results. His skills as a craftsperson and engineer allow him to build objects that work, and that take on the technical and historical signatures of an earlier era. Martz’s Cardigan: General Custer’s Last Stag Hound (2009) is no exception. Much like Martz’s other works, which offer an incredibly rich and richly researched exploration of the contemporary possibilities of historical redemption, Cardigan represents history-gone-wrong in the form of a taxidermic rethinking of Custer’s famous Stag Hound, an animal that the Lieutenant Colonel indeed named “Cardigan.” Custer himself represents the brutality and horror of the European immigrants’ treatment of Indigenous Americans, and his famous “last stand” in 1876 represents one of the last successful, coordinated efforts of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians to preserve and protect their sacred lands in the Black Hills. Martz’s creation thoughtfully examines this tragic intersection of history and humanity. Yet Cardigan also unnerves and frightens. The work presents the viewer with a beast of enormous size, clad in the (forged) regalia of a military procession. The animal bears its teeth viciously, warning the viewer not to approach, and further complicating the cessation of life ironically characteristic of, but not exclusively so, the science of taxidermy. Using visual and verbal puns, Martz engages in a double-edged intervention. On the one had, he suggests the ironic fetishization of “life” pursued by taxidermy, a “science” that often seeks to preserve and stage animals in life-like poses to create the illusion of immortality—for the object and the maker, as well. On the other hand, the “last” in the title of the work alludes both to the Stag Hound Custer owned, as well as to the failed military efforts he and others engaged in during the nineteenth century, the so-called Indian Wars. Custer died at the Battle of Little Bighorn; the Sioux and Cheyenne success also proved short-lived. Cardigan suggests a return to and a rethinking of this ugly phase in U.S. history, an effort at human redemption through animal reflection.

The works of John Bell, Ginny Maki, and Branden Martz situated in relation to pieces from the collection of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota promise to give exhibition viewers insight into not only what makes something Art, and what makes something Science. An Archive, A Forest also promises a look into the way in which the supposed distinction actually constitutes a highly tenuous divide. The artist’s individual works are sure to conjure new ideas, new implications, new interventions when they are viewed in the context of the Bell Museum’s collection. The narratives the exhibition creates through the intermingling of the objects of Science and of Art will not only disrupt viewings of the artists’ works. An Archive, A Forest also promises to disrupt Science a bit, as well.

[1] Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison,  “The Image of Objectivity,” Seeing Science, Spec. issue of Representations 40 (Autumn 1992) 81-128.

[2] Lorraine Daston, “Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective,” The Science Studies Reader, Ed. Mario Biagioli (New York and London:  Routledge, 1999) 110-23.

[3] Daston 111-12.

[4] John Bell, Ginny Maki, and Branden Martz, “Exhibition Description / Press Release” (draft given to the author), 19 March 2010.

[5] Ibid.

Image List

1.) John Bell, Getting Theirs, 2009, watercolor on synthetic paper
20″H x 15″W
2.) John Bell, Teamwork, 2009, watercolor on synthetic paper
20″H x 12″W

3.) John Bell, Thanksgiving, 2009, watercolor on synthetic paper
8″H x 10″W

4.) John Bell, This is what you were meant for, 2008, oil on wood
36″H x 24″W

5.) John Bell, They Move, It’s Just Hard to See, 2010, watercolor on synthetic paper
26″H x 40″W

6.) Ginny Maki,  Killdeer Lake (2009).

7.) Ginny Maki, Saxon Falls (2009).

8.) Ginny Maki, Saxon Harbor (2009)

9.) – 10.) Branden Martz, Cardigan: General Custer’s Last Stag Hound (2009).

11.) Branden Martz, Interrogating Nature (2009).

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  1. Your explanation and description of “Archive, A Forest” was a very interesting read. Thank you for so much information.
    I am looking forward to seeing the show.

  2. Your discussion of the subjectivity of science when juxtaposed with art came up in my anthropology class last spring. When artists, even anthropological artists, recreate/create their ideas of what hominids look like, it’s entirely based on their own subjective opinion. I suppose with science, the claims of objectivity are entirely based on a shared reality. Because so many people agree to abide by certain subjective rules, those rules become the dominant, “objective” reality imposed on society and our social narrative. Placing the art in the context of the Bell Museum certainly changes how one reads the art, and by changing that interaction between subject-artist-viewer, the reading is invariably changed. This leads me to the question… if the qualities that compose “art” are subjective, wouldn’t science be equally subjective without the dominant paradigm?

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  4. Hi Tom, thanks for this interesting essay. It made me think of a new binary–not art and science but science and art criticism, both of which require intuition and intellectual inquiry but depend on pre-existing acts of creation. As for objectivity, always we have a stake in the outcome of our endeavors and one form of intelligence is considering the impact of our investment on the work and whatever it touches.

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