Prairie Contemporary: “Below the Surface” | Faulconer Exhibit Features Prairie Legacy

Marguerite Perret photographs pages from 19th-century herbariums, then collages in contemporary images in her New World Herbarium series. Above, Minnesota Euphorbia, 2005-2009.

"Less stunning at first sight” is the way American poet Walt Whitman described the plains and prairies in 1879. It wasn’t necessarily a criticism—he was making the point that compared to flashy landscapes like Yosemite or Niagara Falls, the grasslands would “last longer, fill the esthetic sense full, precede all the rest. . . .”

Today, the glory of the Midwestern prairies exists only in scattered remnants. Yet as Whitman predicted, that wild, unfettered landscape speaks to us still. In “Below the Surface: A 21st Century Look at the Prairie,” an exhibit opening June 12 at Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery, prairie flora and fauna take center stage, sometimes as factual records and other times reimagined with layers of modern-day transformations.

In collecting artworks for this exhibition, curator Lesley Wright says she favored pieces that “skirted the line” between art and illustration, and has installed them as a sort of natural history display. In the accompanying brochure, she writes, “For scientists, drawing specimens has long been a means of study, of knowledge acquisition, and of pleasure. A number of artists also use a descriptive scientific vocabulary as the basis for their art. In their commingling of art and science, they go below the surface of either field in order to explore how the shaping of visual knowledge affects how we see the world around us.”

A perfect example of that commingling is Marguerite Perret’s New World Herbarium series, one of which is featured on this month’s cover (Minnesota Euphorbia, 2005-2009). Perret photographs 19th-century herbarium pages and then collages in images from modern life.

Other artists in this exhibition photograph in the field (Carl Kurtz) or zero in on details against a white background (Joseph Scheer and Matilda Essig). Peggy Macnamara’s dense drawings offer a tangle of information, and Barbara Fedeler’s charcoals present an undifferentiated mass of prairie or woodland.

Long gone are the oceans of prairie grasses rolling endlessly to the horizon, but “Below the Surface” documents their enduring legacy of boundlessness.    

“Below the Surface” runs June 12 through September 6, 2009, at the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College, (641) 269-4660.  

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