The animals are restless in Richard Ross’ “Museology” photographs. As occupants of natural history museums and taxidermy shops, the beasts are long dead, but life seems to twitch under their fur and feathers.
It isn’t physical life that’s at issue, however, but the life of viewers’ imaginations. Variously interpreted, Ross’ color pictures can set off reactions ranging from indignation to glee.
The “Museology” photographs are on view at the University Art Museum, UC Santa Barbara (to April 16) and in a new book of Ross’ work jointly published by Aperture and the museum. Both the show and the book are financed in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In some minds, there’s something vaguely accusatory about the stuffed creatures that stare out of dioramas, display cases and storerooms in Ross’ photographs. Whether playing romantic roles in gloriously painted landscapes or biding their time in storage, the stuffed animals seem hapless victims, deprived of their dignity and their rights.
How can you not regret that bird specimens with tags on their feet are stuck in glass cases instead flying free? How can you fail to object to that wretched rhino who is entombed at the Field Museum in Chicago--or the jumble of sweet-tempered beasts stuffed into a corner at Deyrolle Taxidermy in Paris?
How? Well, because the spectacle is so absurd. If you feel sorry for the pair of deer with plaster bags over their heads, at the British Museum, or the lions locked into a staged battle, in one of many seductive pictures from Paris’ beautiful old Musee National d’Histoire Naturelle (which has been closed for 30 years), you can also imagine that these poor “dumb” beasts are playing around after hours or amusing themselves by illustrating bizarre practices of civilized mankind. The need to collect, catalogue and re-create nature in an unnatural place has rarely seemed more peculiar.
“Museums are a pretty strange phenomenon,” Ross said in a recent interview. And he hasn’t reserved judgment for natural history museums. His photographs of art showcases around the world suggest some very odd treatments of cultural artifacts.
The head of a classical stone figure languishes on a shadowy stack of architectural fragments at the Musee des Beaux-Arts et d’Histoire Naturelle at Chateaudun, France. A headless stone body stands on one side of an arched window and a head on the other in Athens’ Agora. The two sculptural parts don’t belong to the same figure, but they appear arbitrarily separated.
Plaster casts sometimes prove to be better subjects than original sculpture for Ross. In the British Museum’s plaster casting galleries, a draped Venus seems to be forgotten in a room crammed with work benches, tubes and a ladder.
Sculptural figures in various workshops and storerooms seem oddly out of place amid the utilitarian clutter, but these artworks-in-waiting are no less at home than some pieces lodged in proper galleries. A modest nymph appears to cower in a corner beneath massive gilt-framed paintings at the Russell-Coates Museum in Bournemouth, England, while a male figure at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is upstaged by a potted plant.
Enchanting, arresting, bizarre and occasionally hilarious, these pictures are manifestations of what Ross calls his desire to “make museums into magical places” and to “create something extraordinary out of something ordinary.”
His success is partly a simple matter of framing--a photographer’s essential skill of being able to see a still, focused picture amid a plethora of fleeting appearances. Probably more important is Ross’ benignly irreverent attitude that allows him to combine his great affection for museums with an irresistible urge to deflate their pretensions.
There are precedents for his work: Atget’s shop windows in old Paris, Andre Kertesz’s photographs of plaster casts, and works by early photographers who favored pictures of artworks because--unlike human models--they stood perfectly still for long exposures.
But there’s nothing quite like Ross’ “Museology” study. Ross shows us sights we have never seen though we have gazed into the same corners. Most of his “Museology” pictures--taken over the last 12 years--are scenes just waiting to be snapped by anyone who can see them. But a group of untitled triptychs, done in 1987, takes quite a different approach. In each of these long horizontal panels, Ross combines three blurry images, each recording part of a different artwork.
Using the flawed technology of a plastic camera to produce light images on dark backgrounds, he shuffles art history and creates equivocal composites. Faces we have come to know from paintings mingle with cropped figures and still lifes in dream-like sequences that resemble memories of a European grand tour.
Ross, who is a member of the art faculty at UC Santa Barbara, has done a great variety of photography--from family pictures and commercial work to witty pictures of dogs impersonating other breeds--but “Museology” is the subject that probably has held his interest longest.
He says his fascination with museums began in childhood, with weekly art lessons at the Brooklyn Museum, conveniently located across the street from his father’s ongoing handball game. Now addicted to museums, Ross finds that the subject gives him “excuses to go to remote places” in search of fresh material.
Friends often give him tips but the most wonderful museums don’t necessarily yield the best pictures, he says. Too often he finds “just another perfect scenario"--not at all what he has in mind.