Mr. Field's amazing cabinet of curiosities
By John E. Mitchell
Friday, February 22, 2008
Painter Joshua Field has taken a form of three-dimensional scientific categorization and turned it into a painted
meditation on not only the workings of his mind and creativity, but the system by which all creatures create art and ideas.
Field has drawn his inspiration from an old style of collection called wunder-kammer, a German word meaning "cabinets of wonder."
Wunderkammers were exactly that -- a cabinet that collected various objects for display purposes. Wunderkammers were often used in
area of science -- natural history and archaeology especially -- but also in religion and history. The idea was to bring items
together in order to create a framework for them and craft connections.
The first cabinets date back to the mid-1500's, with the earliest pictured Wunder-kammer being from 1599 -- an engraving in a
natural history book. Over the centuries, the cabinets themselves have morphed into something larger, which Field experienced in
the form of a local museum in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla.
It's the sort of quiet, slightly ramshackle institution that can be found in many towns across America and it's one to which Field
can trace his interest in wunderkammers.
"The museum was mostly comprised from things they had acquired from people who had retired to St. Petersburg," said Field. "It was
a very broad and strange collection, everything from Civil War relics to a mummified person and shrunken heads. In and of itself,
it was sort of a wunderkammer. I think that that was probably influential when I was in high school in some sense. I used to just
wander around through there, it was just cabinets from floor to ceiling, filled. They had a two-headed calf. It was billed as a
museum, but there really was a sideshow kind of feel to it."
Field takes the idea of a wunderkammer and transports it to the canvas. It's not a stretch to proclaim that the cabinets represent
an early form of collage art. Field thinks that the objects function as a nexus between the worlds of art and science in that they
were often conceptualized through a scientific framework, but realized through the kind of personal decision making that constructs
any given piece of art. The wunderkammer was an expression of the compiler as directed by the needs of the particular academic
discipline the cabinet might serve.
"It was done under a pseudo-scientific premise, which changes things a little bit," said Field, "but by the same token, I would say
that most art is about preference, in that we are, as individuals, culling things -- if it's a landscape painter, they are framing
out a particular aspect of the landscape, whereas someone who's doing work like I am, you're actually culling individual images --
and that process is one of selection or preference, and the wunderkammers really were the same thing. Without a set of regulations
or rules, it was a collection of preferences."
Field's approach, though, is to not focus on the esoteric specimens of the traditional wunderkammer -- or their spiritual heirs,
the natural history museum and Ripley's Believe It or Not -- but to turn the tradition into something that is more a part of our
lives. He's using an antiquated method of categorizing specimens and connecting knowledge and applying it to the familiar objects
"I think what's interesting is to take things that are within the realm of the general knowledge and recontextualize them to turn
our view of things on its ear by looking at it differently or in context of different images," said Field. "I like to raise
questions around what meaning something carries in the context of the collective consciousness. I often go back to this notion of
truly looking at things and trying to get beyond the practice of dismissing things by giving them a name."
As an example, Field likes to point to a pencil -- not something people usually give a lot of thought to.
"As adults, we take a pencil and call it a pencil and toss it aside," said Field, "as opposed to looking at it and saying 'Wow,
it's a cylindrical object that's painted with a yellow enamel paint' -- it has all these attributes attached to it. Those
attributes can be wonderful and poetic, but in order to get on with out daily lives, we ignore those attributes and just give it a
name. When I pull elements into these paintings, what I'm trying to do is connect them with what I consider to be other loaded
images in order to see how they play against one another and what senses of drama they create."
The movement to juxtapose -- whether in historical wunderkammers or a museum fashioned by P.T. Barnum or Field's paintings -- is
one that is natural, perhaps even primal, to humans. Everyone does it in some form -- scrapbooking is the current popular
manifestation of the urge. Refrigerators in houses across the country echo the desire to create collage, to contrast, to juxtapose
the ordinary and extraordinary, giving new context to both.
"I think that it goes back to preference," said Field. "Another example you could throw into that mix is the teenage bedroom, where
teenagers plaster their entire room with preference -- rock stars, teen idols, the whole nine yards get plastered onto the walls
and I definitely was a participant in that. When I was 13-years old, my room was covered from floor to ceiling with stuff. It goes
back to this notion of self-definition through your preference. It's pervasive and people don't really acknowledge that art happens
on such a broad level. I'm a big fan of saying that art is extremely broad. Certainly there's a delineation between good art and
bad art, but in the broadest sense, it really is a question of aesthetic preference."
Birds do it
Field views it as an entirely natural way of making art, comparing the color preference for your new pick-up truck with the precise
nests of the bowerbird, which seem to work from organized color schemes. Throw into that line of thought other possibly disparate
points, including artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose work apes what is found in nature, including bowerbird nests, and Joseph Cornell,
a favorite of Field who takes the form of wunderkammer very literally into his artwork.
"I think that what artists often do is to take something that is not necessarily conscious and call attention to it," said Field.
"How different is what I do from somebody who sits down scrapbooking just based on their preferences? In my opinion, the real
difference is that we are consciously calling attention in a broader way to how that connects to the world in a bigger sense."
How to paint a wunderkammer
Field's process begins properly in his sketchbook, but the starting point is actually his instinctual action of clipping images and
articles, organizing them as he sees fit in his own personal wunderkammer -- plastic baggies that he keeps in his studio -- to be
used later as relevant.
"I periodically go through those and pull out things that are relevant to what my thoughts are at that particular point in time,"
said Field, "as well as images that I've been pulling recently and I have them in the back of my sketch book. I physically tape
things into my sketch book using double stick tape roller -- and then draw around those and connect them using drawing. I might
spread out 20 images that I am connecting with and try to look beyond the superfluous information connected with those images,
surface level information. I'm trying to look at them both in terms of what they are but also in terms of metaphor and to make
connections between them."
Those sketches might eventually make it to canvas in the form of one of his paintings, and even then, the process allows for all
sorts of surprises. Though he typically is not enthusiastic about the idea of painting landscapes, he realized very recently that
he was inserting landscapes pulled from his childhood memories into his paintings -- stormscapes off of the Gulf of Mexico that are
vividly etched in his vision of Florida -- he had just never noticed before. In this way, a finished painting is a melding of many
of several concerns that he begins to explore earlier in clippings and sketching.
"What appears on the canvas is actually multiple pages of my sketch book assembled there to carry a certain level of meaning," said
Field. "And my meaning in this painting becomes more conscious than it was in my sketchbook. The sketchbook is really a
subconscious melting pot where I'm pulling things together and it's much more elastic and things become a little more static by the
time they get to the canvas."
Field's one concern is that viewers often approach his paintings as if they were exact code waiting to be deciphered, puzzles to be
solved, but in Field's mind they just don't work that way.
"I don't want to have these be didactic in anyway because it's just not as fun," said Field. "It becomes like a crossword puzzle
and I don't think crossword puzzles are particularly compelling because there's a single answer. I think it's much more interesting
when people can look at these from different points of view."
Much like the wunderkammers that continue to fire his brain with ideas, Field hopes that his work can do the same for others --
"Kids in particular have blown me away looking at my work," said Field, "because they just don't carry the same dismissiveness of
imagery that adults do. They're much more open to images having multiple meanings."
This is the kind of interaction that hearkens back to an artistic awakening for Field in his high school years in Florida, when his
experience began to raise questions in his mind of what art was, of who makes it, of what it means. These are questions that Field
is still raising in his paintings -- and with his work's interaction with its audience.
"I went to a high school for the arts. It was a magnet school that was introduced into an all black school to try and diversify the
school's population and it was in a pretty rough neighborhood," said Field. "Right around the corner was a butcher shop and I'll
never forget it, it was this little cinder block building and the entire outside of the building was covered with hand-painted
signage -- they had actually painted cuts of meat and prices on the side of the building. It was phenomenal. It was all drippy, and
the way it showed the painter's hand was just amazing. I'm sure it's not there or like it was anymore, but it was really a sight to
"The idea that I was there in my little ivory tower of academia in my high school, painting on a surface with a brush and paint and
just two blocks away, there's some guy out in the heat of the sun in Florida on a ladder painting cuts of meat on the side of this
building, raised questions about how different those things are or more importantly, how much are they the same?"
Joshua Field's work is currently on display at the Kolok Gallery in North Adams. Field can be found online at www. joshuafield.com.