The phrase "man's conquest of nature" has sounded a tad ironic of late. Science and technology are as amazing as ever, but Mother Nature has been pushing back, serving up a bumper crop of wind, water and wildfire disasters over the last few years. The Renaissance ideal of turning the natural world into art at least maintained a sense of balance — the still life ("nature morte" or "dead nature") paintings of the period often had a leering human skull placed among the fruit and flowers to remind the viewer that mortality always has the last laugh. But old-time natural history museums often seemed dead to start with. Sarah Cusimano Miles' Solomon's House photo series deploys vintage objects from the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama and subjects them to her camera's penetrating, ultra-high-resolution gaze. Inspired by Francis Bacon's proposed utopian 17th-century natural sciences academy of the same name, Solomon's House is an oddly psychological, sometimes disturbing series that reveals as much about human attitudes as it does about its animal subjects, taking us on an eerie journey in which vintage science itself is put under a microscope.
Some images involve straightforward, if unusually aesthetic, views of frogs and reptiles in bottles of formaldehyde, but others feature stuffed birds and animals in the studied poses of vintage still life compositions with fresh fruit or veggies. The results are beautiful yet strikingly off. In Herring Gull with Artichoke, the stuffed gull seems to have swooned at the sight of the artichoke, and the equally aged bird in Lilac-Breasted roller with kumquats (pictured) looks tragic, as if it keeled over amid the chaos of spilled kumquats and an overturned silver pedestal dish. It's a weird new take on the old forbidden fruit theme, a metaphor, perhaps, for an age in which art and science, old and new, sometimes appear hopelessly entangled, and nothing is as clear as the utopian scientists of the past had once imagined. — D. Eric Bookhardt