Elephants in the Attic

Buying art should be like falling in love–you shouldn’t set out to do it, it should just happen.

So here’s how it happened:

When we first got back to New York, we learned that an old Aussie friend of Justine’s has a gallery show up in Chelsea. (This friend’s name is, confusingly, Justine Cooper, so I’ll be calling her Justine C.) Now, I’m always trying to get Justine (Justine L., my wife) over to Chelsea to look at art. In my dot-com days, I actually bought some artworks, mostly as a way to avoid buying crashing tech stocks. So this personal connection of Justine’s was my chance to drag her around the galleries and see what was up this summer.

And the best thing that was up was Justine C.

Justine’s C.’s show is called Saved By Science. It consists of work created in her year as artist-in-residence at the Museum of Natural History. Basically, Justine C. got to poke around in the basement storerooms of the museum (where 95% of their collection lives), finding exceedingly cool and weird stuff to take pictures of. She even used a 1910 camera from the museum’s collection of vintage cameras, which is the sort of touch I love.

Experiencing the show is sort of like exploring an old Victorian mansion owned by a mad-keen collector of butterflies, tiger skins, and vitriated frogs:

(Okay, all these pictures are copyright 2004, Justine Cooper. Do not steal them. I asked permission to post them, you should too.)

This stuff is spooky, melancholy, and beautiful. There’s a weird juxtaposition between the pictures’ cool technical brilliance and the 19th-century mustiness of the subject matter. The (sometimes) high-tech storage equipment clashes with the skins, bones, and antlers, like a spacecraft built to take Earth’s heritage somewhere after a nuclear war.

So Justine and I wandered through these virtual cabinets of curiosities, soon splitting up to explore on our lonesomes. Eventually we rambled back into each other in front of a particular picture, which turned out to be both our favorites.

“I want it,” she said.

I did too.

So here it is, our first major art acquisition since getting married. It’s called “Elephants in the Attic.” And yes, those are elephant skulls, all set out in a row in the attic of the museum. The skulls look almost like something from a Giger painting to me, something alien enough to disturb, yet familiar enough that you can still make elephants out of them in your mind’s eye. Their home in the musty attic adds a layer of sadness and a feeling of forgotten history, which is pretty much what these hidden places are.

Click to behold in a larger format.

It’s full size is 39″ by 30″, which is big. If you go big, you’ll see that the skull in the middle has a tag on it. In person, you can actually read the handwriting on it, which says, “C. Akeley.” This refers to Carl Akeley, the museum’s primary African collector from 1909 to 1926, when he died of a fever in Africa. For MoNH and SF geeks, this is super cool. Akely hunted with Teddy Roosevelt, was something of a creepy eugenicist, safaried with a young Alice Bradley (who later wrote several masterpieces of science fiction under the penname James Triptree), and was instrumental in early conservation movements.

After he was buried in Africa, his bones were stolen by poachers and sold to some collector somewhere. Well, turnabout is fair play.

Anyway, every picture tells a story. This one tells many,

To see Justine C.’s work in person, go to:
Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
531 West 25th Street, New York
until June 4, 2005.

For more about Justine Cooper, go to her site.

To see many of the photos online, go here.

3 thoughts on “Elephants in the Attic

  1. Back in ’84, my wife and I honeymooned in Europe. One of the most memorable things we saw was the Natural History Museum in Salzberg. The overarching business plan of this museum must have been, “Shove all the old crap upstairs.” As a consequence, each storey was more dated than the one beneath it. By the time we got to the top (fourth floor? fifth floor?) we were walking through a natural history museum circa 1880, complete with stuffed dodo and a whole “Freaks of Nature” wing. I wonder if that place is still open.

    Cool pix, by the way!

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