The Peabody Museum’s latest exhibit — the opening of which drew an overflow crowd to the third floor — combines powerful two and three dimensional artworks that will forever change your perception of beetles. Yes, beetles, those small flying and crawling insects many of us commonly, if not mistakenly, call bugs.
New Haven sculptor Gar Waterman has been imbuing small creatures and natural forms with heroic stature for decades. Together with photographer William Guth, the artists’ intriguing and comparatively monumental forms and images now grace the Peabody’s new exhibit, playfully entitled “Beauty and the Beetle: Coleoptera in Art & Science.”
True to the title, actual beetle specimens are strategically placed in the exhibit, allowing viewers to compare forms that are usually the purview of entomologists with the two artists’ creations and interpretations.
Waterman, who said he had fun working with the museum’s entomologists and staff on “a most elegant beetle inspired art/science exhibit,” describes the sculpting method used in this exhibit as bricolage (from the French verb “to tinker”) — the construction of a work created with found objects or whatever materials are available.
“These sculptures,” states Waterman on an exhibit display card, “were initially inspired by metal stampings that resembled insect legs, cast offs from an automobile brake parts manufacturer, and what began as found object art eventually evolved into a wonderfully unorthodox science lesson in entomology. The more I studied beetles to inform my art work, the more fascinated I became with their extraordinary biology and biodiversity.”
A video created by the artist, Building a Beetle, which is posted with other Waterman videos to Vimeo and is part of the exhibition display, describes his process in collecting materials, designing and fabricating his beetle sculptures — an arduous process of welding, grinding, and shaping after hours of research and microscope peering as he examined the topographic contours and anatomical features that helped him translate the natural forms into sculptural works.
Although Waterman’s facility to build and shape three dimensional forms is informed, in part, by the hours of fighter airplane model building he did as a youngster, he is adamant about the goal of his complex additive sculptures: “My intent is not to make a model; what would be the point?”
Waterman said that he hopes the interpretive works of art will inspire more interest in the scientific aspect of his creations, just as his own interest has grown. Waterman said he did not study science in college, but “came to a vested interest through a back door.”
In addition to learning through his own arts-inspired research, Waterman’s “back door” included many educational experiences in exotic locations as the son of pioneering oceanographic filmmaker and photographer Stan Waterman. From exploring nudibranchs (tiny sea slugs) to collecting otherworldly feral seeds in Tahiti, natural and sometimes microscopic forms have figured into his art making as an adult, allowing the viewer to glimpse unfamiliar aspects of the natural world — which Waterman fears are now threatened by climate change and pollution.
Photographer William Guth presents imagery that also helps us see beetles in new ways. Each poster-sized photograph focuses on a singular beetle positioned as one would find it in a specimen box; the “models” are from the museum’s comprehensive collection, which for the purposes of this exhibit, was curated by Leonard E. Munstermann, PhD.
Guth’s beetle images, printed on aluminum, gleam with iridescent color against deep, black backgrounds, a striking contrast that projects each specimen like a holographic jewel. One is hard-pressed to describe the works as two-dimensional owing to their extreme sharpness, a kind of super realism created through stacked photography technique — the layering of 14 images photographed in half-millimeter increments along a lathe bed. Through the use of software, the multiple focus zones combine for a fully focused image.
Guth describes the significant elements of his macro-photography as lighting, camera control and photo editing software. “Modification of light through polarization, small reflectors, and shading devices enable emphasis of fine detail,” he writes in an artist’s statement.
In discussing a portrait he made of Waterman in his studio that appears as part of the exhibition display, Guth summed up his technique as “staging so it doesn’t looked staged.” Using photographic staging techniques, Guth goes to great lengths to shape viewer perception, noting a quote by naturalist Henry David Thoreau and his understanding of the brain’s role in shaping what we actually see: “The eye looks, but the brain sees.”
A retired employee of Yale University, Guth currently volunteers at the Peabody as a photographer. “Beauty and the Beetle” represents the first time his own work has been the subject of an artists’ exhibition at the museum and also a departure from his usual photographic pursuits.
The Peabody exhibit represents a milestone in both artists’ personal careers, but also reflects the museum’s ongoing commitment to honoring art as integral and necessary to the understanding of science. Richard Kissel, Director of Public Programs at the Peabody, noted the Peabody’s famous mural, The Age of Reptiles, by Rudolph F. Zallinger, as an early example of art helping to explain science at the museum.
“Art is critical for science. So much is how we visualize — visualization and magnification is a critical step,” he said. The same idea is expressed in the exhibit materials: “Science and art are both studied reflections of nature. Each discipline investigates its subject in different but also remarkably similar ways — science to document and explain, art to interpret and express.”
For Waterman and Guth, the work of Peabody Museum staff members — Sally Pallatto, exhibits and graphics designer; Laura Friedman, exhibit designer, and William Krinski, entomology curatorial affiliate — could not have been better.
“The exhibit,” said Waterman, “is the only exhibit where I couldn’t say it could have been done better…. They did well to provide enough bits of beetle biology without the viewers’ eyes glazing over.”
Perhaps none will benefit more from the exhibit than future generations of beetles, as at least one goal of the exhibit seems likely: “to shift public perception of insects away from the predictable response of fear and loathing to one of curiosity,” as Waterman noted.
“Beauty and the Beetle” runs through August 6 at the Peabody Museum, 170 Whitney Ave. For more information visit the Peabody’s website.