Walking into Barbara Sullivan and Juliet Karelsen’s “Into the Forest: Flora, Fauna, Lichen, Moss” at Waterville’s Common Street Arts is like walking into the L.C. Bates Museum – if it were imagined as an art installation.

The connection to the oddities from nature (typically) displayed not far away in Hinckley is real enough: Sullivan’s shaped fresco animals and Karelsen’s felted, sewn and needlepointed rocks and minerals are joined by familiar taxidermied animal specimens and mineral samples on loan from the museum.

While this may sound like not much of a leap, something strange is going on, quietly hidden in plain sight among a particularly fun, witty and entertaining installation exhibition.

And this is a really fun installation. Sullivan has drawn some forest scenes on large sheets of white paper hung directly on the walls. On these, she has mounted her shaped fresco (painting in plaster – the ancient technique used, for example, by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel) paintings of animals. Birds sit on branches. A porcupine crawls up a tree. Deer and various beasts set about on the forest floor. Karelsen’s fiber “rocks” sit on pedestals or hide among their real counterparts in glass cabinets. The taxidermy is strange enough to earn its own smirks and grins, but among Sullivan’s and Karelsen’s playful facsimiles, it creates a witty and often wacky world. A real beaver looks hungrily towards Sullivan’s inky paper-drawn forest, but right behind it – hilariously – is Sullivan’s fresco-sculpted chainsaw.

Karelsen’s works remind viewers that “the ecosystem is a living organism, including the inorganic minerals.”

It is easy to view the exhibition as a collection of objects by artists: The red dots on many of Karelsen’s small, framed texture studies are reminders that this is a gallery show in a world of paintings and sculptures. But the show is also something more complex; it’s a meditation on how we have evolved in our understanding of natural sciences. You can start with an isolated object to contemplate, but once you hit critical mass, the objects create their own environment – in every sense of the word. This is an artists’ environment – an installation – but it is also a naturalists’ environment, the animals’ environment and the environment of the gallery viewers – and that’s us.

Sullivan and Karelsen don’t require the viewer to think on these conceptual terms: The experience is more than enough. But these terms make for a very rich experience if you choose to wander among their labyrinthian implications – which is precisely the type of thinking that Victorian institutions like the L.C. Bates Museum were originally intended to inspire.

You don’t need to have visited the Bates Museum to follow the artists’ frolic through the forests of Maine. That said, anyone who hasn’t yet visited it should. The museum is an extraordinary example of Victorian culture: It is itself its greatest cultural relic. It is an old building right out of a Mary Shelley novel: towering, dark, brooding, complex and romantically regal. Its interiors are stuffed like a vast cabinet of wonders with relics of all sorts: art, rows of minerals in vitrines, anthropological treasures, scientific instruments of bygone ages, wondrous (and often bizarre) objects from around the world and an extraordinary collection of taxidermied animals, often set in beautifully executed artist-painted dioramas.

A variety of woodland creatures, including skunks, inhabit Sullivan’s portion of the exhibition.

Sullivan and Karelsen use the animals and minerals from the museum to set their typical approaches to their own work in a specific type of encyclopedic context of information. It’s a natural history setting, but an approach flavored by the Victorian view of the world. In a sense, the artists are intentionally pressing us to consider the installation from a romantic perspective, as opposed to our current (American) assumption that we’re Enlightenment thinkers when it comes to science – that is, scientifically objective.

As opposed to Enlightenment objectivity, Romanticism follows the idea that the individual perspective takes precedent over outside truths. Your seventh-grade science teacher might have derided this as a soft option, but it is arguably the fundamental core of American culture since (and before) Westerners decided to brave the unknown savagery of the unmapped New World. What, after all, guides you into the unknown? From Horatio Alger stories of raising yourself up by your own bootstraps to the internal terrors of Stephen King to the soulfulness of blues and the internal spirituality of Abstract Expressionism, American culture is and has always been primarily about personal perspective.

This conversation could turn towards political narcissism or any of a thousand well-seeded fields, but wherever you let Sullivan and Karelsen inspire you to go, you set out from their well-executed garden of environment, of ecosystem. What they have presented is something subtle and yet obvious: The ecosystem is a living organism – including the inorganic minerals. Rocks and water, dirt and decay are the home for this biome. It’s a nice place, thoughtful, beautiful, wildly interesting and often fun. Sullivan’s adorable baby skunks inhabit the wall by your feet while you read the wall text introduction; cute as they may be, they also represent (particularly since they’re with a potentially protective mom) an unwelcome stinky experience.

Nature is all these things: beautiful, charming, exciting, fleeting and fun. And the Maine woods are a place for aesthetic, spiritual and philosophical contemplation. This is the land of Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists, Romantic thinkers through and through. Conversations about the environment must range from policy to morality to points of entertainment and economy. “Into the Forest: Flora, Fauna, Lichen, Moss” takes us to any of these paths, where, presumably if we follow our individual priorities – we are all romantics, after all – we will find what matters most to each of us.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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