Review: Judith Van Heeren
Judith Van Heeren
Murray White Room
An interesting show in a wonderful space. Richly coloured paintings of birds (specimens from the Natural History museum in New York, we are told) set in fanciful landscapes.
At first glance these works have a luminous quality and a depth which is quite appealing.
But there is a bit of a niggle for me in that the finish looks a bit rough and hurried, especially in the larger paintings. Fine, but the nature of the work invites close inspection and while sometimes it is rewarding, quite often it is not rewarding.
Having got that out of the way, a couple of things here interest me. Firstly, the birds seem to sit in a foreground picture plane that is in front of, and separate to, the background landscape. This gives the impression that the landscape is itself a flat plane, rather like a painted backdrop. With the knowledge that these are museum specimens, this makes sense - we are looking at paintings of real or imagined dioramas.
Secondly, in presentation and content Van Heeren is tapping into some interesting themes about the presentation of visual material in a scientific mode. Scientists often foster the idea that the way they present visual information is objective and somehow uncoloured by aesthetic considerations (by which I mean matters of taste). Of course, many choices made in presenting the information are purely aesthetic. This is something to be celebrated - science is a fantastically creative endeavour and if the visual presentation looks good, it helps to get the information across. Science is still about finding truth and anything that helps to increase the sum of knowledge is A Good Thing in my opinion.
Thirdly, that naturalistic diorama can be considered as an example of Romantic Science. Whereas enlightenment science emphasised rational thought and logic with implications of dominance and control over nature, the Romantic view was to peacefully co-exist with nature. With the diorama, we see nature holistically, as an entity to be admired, respected, perhaps even understood, but not controlled. These sentiments have resonance today.
But in Van Heeren's work, the naturalistic diorama is itself exposed as a construct. The fanciful landscapes, the influence of Chinoiserie, the heightened colours and general artificiality of the spaces Van Heeren paints seem to be critiquing Romantic science - the suggestion is that we really can’t just view nature as nature. Is Van Heeren a proponent of positivism? I'm not so sure. I think there is actually a reverence and perhaps even a nostalgia for a relationship with nature which would allow that sort of romanticising. Certainly the works evoke much of the appeal of a diorama, even while they question the effectiveness of the philosophy behind it.