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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

A natural sandstone concretion from France that is about 5 feet wide
all photos by Robert Blake
Is Mother Nature an artist? That question came to mind as I perused the mind-blowing collection of minerals at Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven on a recent road trip.
My old friend Rob, a rock hound and certified gemologist, guided me on this trip, and assured that this collection is truly dazzling even to an expert (he grew up near Harvard, which has a similarly impressive collection, but he said the Peabody's outshines Harvard's in terms of the size of the specimens and the way they're displayed).

To rank amateur me, the outstanding impression was of sculptural brilliance. Sure, the collectors who pay a king's ransom to own such specimens are as affected by aesthetic concerns as anyone, but they're still gathering objects that came from nature, not an artist's studio. Though there's no individual creator making these objects - just chemistry plus time - the results are no less visually exciting than a carefully executed sculpture. After all, who wouldn't be pleased to display the beer-can sized specimen of beryl with albite from Pakistan shown at right, above, on a nice pedestal in their living room?

A stunning specimen of pure gold found in California
By the way, the Peabody is best known for its dinosaur exhibits, which were not on view for our visit (and won't be for years, pending massive renovations), but the mineral exhibits alone were well worth the trip to New Haven (a city I'd never visited, despite having once lived in Connecticut for several years). Additionally, the museum has an equally impressive bird collection, and quite a few excellent dioramas featuring a broad array of environments and their respective animal specimens.

The heart of the mineral collection is in a special gallery dedicated to a donor and Yale alumnus named David Friend. Here, examples of extraordinary value from the collection are grouped with equally outstanding specimens on loan from the friends of Friend. We were told that this selection rotates every couple of years, as many more items than can be displayed are available. Just a few are shown in the photos in this post, but the full display is extensive, featuring all types and sizes, as well as a good sampling of gems for fans of wearable art. All of it is beautifully mounted and dramatically lit with high-tech spotlight arrays.

So, check out these examples, and think about going. Alert: Those renovations will take over the entire museum as of this June - and it won't reopen until 2023. Now's the time.

Our blogger examines a giant fossil of prehistoric plants and fish

Sunday, January 5, 2020

In Brief: Michelle Bowen at ACCR

Michelle Bowen - Mind and Body with Soul
acrylic on linen
A unique concept drives the current solo exhibition titled Huelitic Code: Language Through a Prism, which features prints and paintings by Michelle Bowen at the Arts Center of the Capital Region through Feb. 2.

Bowen has invented a system of colors associated with letters, something akin to automatic writing, in that it decides for her what colors to use in each work of art. The majority of her paintings are clean, geometric designs that nest series of stripes in symmetrical arrangements that use her system to represent short sets of related words (while some comprise asymmetrical series of tiny squares that represent longer texts).

I don't know what method Bowen used to determine which colors represent each letter - it appears random - but it's certain the resulting paintings would look very different if that set-up were changed. Whatever the basis of choice, the word-derived images are often very appealing as color studies, but can also be slightly confounding. For example, Bowen has produced a set of smaller works that each represent a color by name, but the colors assigned to the letters follow the code, not the color being represented. So, in one instance, the painting that represents "blue" has no blue in it.

Black and White with Heart, acrylic on linen
Sorry if that is hard to understand - but it's the nature of the show to be a bit of a puzzle, and an eye-pleasing one at that. For me, the richest compositions and the simplest joys in this exhibition are purely visual, though Bowen's penchant for provocative juxtapositions (e.g. "autocracy" and "democracy") is stimulating and easy enough to comprehend visually.

It got a lot tougher for me to relate where Bowen chooses to represent much longer passages, described as being from scripture, as well as other literal evocations of spirituality, such as in a painting that makes a colorful geometric abstraction out of numerous names for "god," which felt a bit preachy.

Bowen's strength is in the originality and impeccable execution of her concept - I'm happy with any system an artist employs if in the end we have something absorbing or beautiful to contemplate. Bowen succeeds on both counts.