In Renaissance Europe, before the advent of museums as we think of them today, there were private collections of things unable to be classified or understood called wunderkammer, or “cabinet of wonders.” The items were encyclopedic collections of objects whose collective categorization were beyond the means of classification. Some items were unclear in origin, and some were simply not understood.
These collections were most commonly propagated by private owners and most often were housed in a room, not in a cabinet, as the name would suggest. The rooms were intended to not only provide a place to contemplate the wonders of the natural world but also to reflect the power and prowess of the owner. Early practitioners of the natural sciences also created wunderkammers that are considered to be the precursors to museums as we understand them today.
In a trip back through time, Satellite Galleries at Science Museum Oklahoma, 2100 NE 52nd St., will feature an exhibition that will provide a chance to witness a wunderkammer in modern times. It is a thoughtfully curated collection that focuses on an exhibit of paintings by Brandice Guerra. The exhibit, part of a dual show with Totemic Taxonomy, features Guerra’s dark and clever paintings as well as specimens ranging from taxidermy to antique anatomical models.
Scott Henderson, director of the galleries, sought contributors to create the “cabinet” from various sources, from local taxidermists to the Department of Natural Sciences at Northestern Oklahoma State University, where Guerra was a professor.
“[Brandice] introduced me to the world of the wunderkammer, and I started running with how we could put this all together,” Henderson said. “It started small and grew into this tremendous exhibit full of intriguing rarities, specimens, artifacts and art.”
According to Guerra, the science museum gallery is the ideal setting for her paintings, which she named for the unique spaces of the Renaissance. Henderson collaborated with Guerra to create an exhibit with a sense of wonder at the variation of the natural world, much like the wonder cabinets of old.
“It’s something I was interested in since graduate school,” Guerra said. “I have actually been making little wunderkammers in my house, and I had no idea. I think artists are naturally hoarders, but we’re just better at curating the hoard.”
Guerra is currently teaching and building an illustration program for Humboldt State University in Northern California. In regard to the exhibit, Guerra is delighted at how her paintings are being exhibited.
“It’s this wonderful melding of all the things I think are wonderful about being alive and the perfect way to express it,” she said.
Sharing space in the gallery at the same time will be another exhibit that shares a similar theme: the meaning and power of objects in modern life. Peter Froslie and Cathleen Faubert collaborated on a series that Henderson calls “a playful academic presentation where totems are explored within the context of the 21st century.”
Froslie and Faubert are both assistant professors of art and technology at the University of Oklahoma. Both have backgrounds in fine art and technology and are in their fourth year at the university.
Froslie explained that totemism was an idea that was essentially killed with the postmodern movement in art and culture. He said that this “outdated” way of thinking still bears exploring, especially in our technology-dependent culture. The world of online communities and interaction are still very much in their infancy; it’s wide-open territory for exploration and classification.
“We got interested in objects and collections, and I think that’s how we arrived at it,” he said. “We started thinking about totems and what characteristics of totemism might exist between those virtual spaces [online communities] and the physical.”
The items that make up the Totemic Taxonomy collection all have the shared quality of being objects or images that have powerful connotations or meanings. Both artists were drawn to their potential meaning in terms of everyday life in the 21st century.
The objects are arranged alone or in groups according to the totemic qualities they possess. In the exhibit, there are many examples of animals, such as sports mascots and other facets of popular culture. There are many, many examples of rabbits, according to Froslie.
“There’s the instance of ‘following the rabbit,’ as in Alice in Wonderland and The Matrix, bunnies existing as guides to assist or impede you,” he said.
For that portion of the exhibit, there are a series of rabbit wind-up toys that interact with guests in unusual ways to illustrate their potential as more than toys. The entire purpose of the exhibit is to encourage guests to take a second look at the everyday objects they take for granted as symbols of something more. Both exhibits will be on display in the Satellite Galleries until Sept.15.