What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
from The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
Upon entering the dimly lit gallery at Chazen Museum of Art, one encounters postapocalyptic remnants in an elaborate display: a cabinet of curiosities titled, somewhat paradoxically, My Arcadia,constructed of rich, dark mahogany supporting a large glass case. Inside reside three variously sized bell jars, each housing tortured and desiccated treelike forms rooted in a ground littered with the detritus of conflict and conflagration. The lower cabinet features drawers on opposing sides containing what appear to be fragments of bone; skeletal bird skulls; parchment documents, which are photoetched copper plates; and, in the most shocking revelation, the dried and hollowed remains of a cat cast in what seems to be pewter or lead, adding to the dread and solemnity of its presentation (the actual process is more direct and proprietorial, involving polyurethane and graphite powder pigment).
This hugely ambitious work, now on permanent display at Chazen and most Madisonians’ first encounter with Martha Glowacki, provides a select glimpse into the discipline of natural philosophy, the forerunner of today’s modern science. The cornerstone of that philosophy is careful and recorded observation married to a thoughtful effort to order and explain the meaning and mechanisms that support those observations. Wealthy persons collected specimens from the natural world, art objects, and even fictional marvels masquerading as examples of the biological world and displayed them in rooms or cabinets specifically designed for that purpose. In a sense, these collections were an attempt to reconcile the two magisterium of science and the arts or, as legendary paleontologist Steven Jay Gould would have, science and the humanities.
For an artist like Martha who seeks, through poetic juxtaposition, to find an emotional truth through her collection and manufacture of objects, it’s her interest in the history of science that led to her career making art that is both dependent upon and a simulacrum of scientific method and explication. Martha received her MFA in art metal from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1978, where she studied under Fred Fenster and Eleanor Moty, a pioneer in developing photoetching for art metalwork, a technique now essential to Martha’s work.
Traditionally, artists in the metalworking arena are drawn to producing decorative objects and body adornment. But Martha, having worked in the Wisconsin Historical Museum, became intrigued with aspects of material culture, agricultural implements, and narrative. She felt the need to expand her work into areas of inquiry not traditionally associated with the fine arts. At the same time, she began to explore ways to include found objects into her work. Reflecting back on her early childhood experiences in the Milwaukee Public Museum, which is designed to encourage interactive exploration, she started to expand the ambition of her work to include more sculptural elements accompanied by constituent remnants of scientific tools and specimens. Her inquiries led her to further examine the work of artist/scientists like Frederik Ruysch (1638‒1731), a dedicated anatomical illustrator from Amsterdam.
As the scale of Martha’s interests and research expanded, so too did the scale of her work. There’s a current vogue in the art world for displays of art referred to as installations. Often, these can appear to be virtually random assemblages of found and manipulated materials loosely associated by theme or title. Martha’s installations, by contrast, are elaborately constructed, deeply researched, and meticulously crafted opportunities to reflect upon and resonate with areas of scientific investigation and development. Her work eschews the sometimes-tedious didacticism of many museum displays, choosing to engage the viewer’s observational devotion and feed their intellectual engagement. Rather than providing an explicit roadmap that might lead to a reductive truth, as with so much science, Martha provides the viewer with a multiplicity of visual stimuli designed to evoke a different and subjective response from each observer.
In 2004, Martha created an experimental grouping of work at the Washburn Observatory on the UW–Madison campus titled Starry Transit. The overarching theme was the migrational tactic of birds to use the celestial markers of the night sky to assure their safe navigation. One of the most impressive elements is the Starry Transit cabinet, a six-foot-high nickel display cabinet holding an asymmetrical arrangement of black graphited birds accompanied by three-dimensional models of the constellations used by the birds on their travels. In the cabinet drawers are etched copper plates showing maps of spring and fall constellations.
In 2017, as part of a larger Chazen installation entitled Martha Glowacki’s Natural History: Observations and Reflections, Martha created a set of pieces called Deconstructing Flight: An Homage to Etienne-Jules Marey. Marey (1830-1904) was a French physiologist, scientist, and chronophotographer who used sequenced and often overlapping photos to reveal and understand animal locomotion. Martha devised an ingenious bolero jacket fitted with skeletal wings constructed of piano action components arching out in the silhouette of wing shapes. Renowned photographer Gregory Vershbow photographed art historian Shira Brisman wearing this apparel using a gun camera, taking a series of photos that animate the motion in a three-minute loop reminiscent of Marey’s experiments with contemporaneous overlapped sequential images.
In the same show, Martha exhibited an intricate piece reminiscent of 17th century Dutch perspective boxes. Titled Lacuna, a cavity or depression, it’s composed of cast iron, bronze, wood, mirrors, marbleized paper, animal bones, and pigments. Inside of a hexagonal case sits a blasted landscape of scarred and ashy remains surrounding a conical-shaped drumlin revealing a tarry abyss from which blackened bumblebees emerge. Mirrors placed on the inside of the case extend the landscape into an infinity of loss.
Currently, Martha is working to restore a 19th century Venetian display cabinet featuring gilded figures and inlaid stone (pietra dura), which will house her imaginings of a Wisconsin garden illuminated by oculi delivering natural light to her constructed interiors. Like all of Martha’s work, an elaborate and baroque mystery to be contemplated and reflected upon.
To see more of Martha’s work, visit marthaglowackiartist.com.
Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona.
Photographs provided by Martha Glowacki.