Infusing life: Artist’s childhood fascination with natural-history dioramas recalled in recent art project

Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2015

Animal? Vegetable? Mineral? Titles like “Fish,” “Bat,” and “Baby Crocodile” reveal the animal sources of Stephen Petegorsky’s inkjet prints, but works in a recent series span categories to stake out the intriguing territory between taxonomies.

“Animal” in origin, the artwork begins with slices of scientific specimens of land and sea creatures — which Petegorsky photographs and then Photoshops. “Vegetable” comes with extreme close-ups and dramatic cropping that reframe the original specimens as organic landscape forms. And “Mineral” enters into the chemical process called “staining and clearing” that renders tissue transparent while leaving bones and cartilage opaque.

Alive or inanimate, animals are a long-term interest for Petegorsky.

He currently lives in Florence, but as a child growing up in New York City, he says he loved going to the Central Park Zoo, although, he admits, “It was sometimes depressing, because it was like looking at animals in jail.” He was also fascinated by the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in the city. The combination of 3-dimensional taxidermy animals and 2-dimensional painted backgrounds raised questions of what was real and what was not. “I was truly mesmerized,” he said.

Now, cut ahead to the 1990s in western Massachusetts. Behind the scenes at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Petegorsky made a delightful discovery: “hundreds of taxidermed animal specimens — most of them really ratty — stuffed in a storage closet.” He borrowed stuffed animals for photo shoots, and used front-screen projections to set the tattered taxidermed birds and mammals against evocative background scenes. The dioramas of his childhood were coming to life anew — with an underpinning of death.

“In the earlier images [in this series], I was responding to form and color,” he said. “In the image of the crane, the curve of the bird’s neck seemed like the curve of a path winding through a landscape in an old picture postcard.” But as Petegorsky began to use the more-damaged pieces of taxidermy, a darker side emerged and deeper echoes reverberated between foreground and background.

At the same time he was working on this series, he was also creating transparencies of 19th-century images for filmmaker Ken Burns. Tintypes, amber-types, daguerreotypes — these old photographic images disintegrated over time as their surface emulsions “crazed and cracked.” For Petegorsky, photographic cracklelure prompted thoughts of death and mortality, memory and time.

“The images had such a different connotation now that they had aged,” he notes, “running parallel to what happens to us as we age.”

Weaving together two strands of mortality, he juxtaposed decrepit taxidermy with damaged photographs, for example, posing a one-eyed bobcat in front of a post-mortem daguerreotype of a child. The mangy bobcat’s manic gaze thrusts toward the viewer, and contrasts with the background image of the dying child, fading away from life with half-closed eyes. It’s neither morbid nor macabre, Petegorsky insists, but it was actually quite common, in the second half of the 19th century, to photograph children at death as a way to memorialize them.

Old collection, new home

Fast forward to summer 2014, when Petegorsky discovered and explored a collection of animal specimens at University of Massachusetts Amherst. At first, Kate Doyle, collections manager of the Natural History Collection, opened cabinet doors to reveal a crush of taxidermed creatures. They looked so familiar, he marveled: all that damaged fur; those mangled feathers. It was, in fact, Wistariahurst’s old collection, in a new home. But now Petegorsky’s interest turned away from taxidermy and toward tiny test tubes containing “cleared and stained” animal specimens. With diaphanous tissue and darker-toned bones and cartilage, such specimens reveal animal morphology without X-rays or dissections. Petegorsky photographed these biological samples, lighting from behind for greater visual drama.

“This kind of work has been done before,” Petegorsky said, “mainly highlighting how cool the specimens look. But I wanted this not as the end point, but as the point of departure.”

So his photographs of specimens are just the beginning. He manipulates them extensively with Photoshop: isolating images, enlarging and cropping forms, finally pairing each one with a complementary background that begins as a natural pattern — fog, frost, clouds and waves — which he also exaggerates and adjusts.

“With these,” he said, “I had no clear end point in mind, so it was more like painting, as a process.”

Dramatically larger than their tiny test-tube origins, the inkjet prints run in the range of 24 inches by 30 inches, and are framed as organic abstractions rather than morphological portraits. Along with “Fish 3” is an entire menagerie including “Two Frogs” that appear to be on fire, “Lizard 1” transfixed in a gesture of trans-species despair, a series of “Snakes” arcing elegantly across the page, and the delicate, fragmentary skeleton of “Bat” — which resembles some of Petegorsky’s photographs of tangled vines.

“I’ve never done just one type of photography,” he said. For example, another consistent component of his work looks to the landscape. Some of those landscapes, coincidentally, include images of animals, including a dead fox, a drowned mouse, a crow dusted with frost, and a frozen cow covered by snow — “all things that are beautiful and sad at the same time,” he said.

Yet another series also moves into an elegiac mode: Utilizing gilded boards and photo emulsion film, Petegorsky takes an image, reworks it, and then transfers that altered image onto the textured gold surface.

“We remember images as fragments, fragments floating in our memories,” he said. “So I wondered, how can I make a material version of memory?”

In his attempts to visually evoke memory, he employed animals and sea creatures, but also old photographs and fragments of dried plants.

“Many of the images were dead things — I don’t know what to say about that. I am not interested in death per se, but many things are beautiful in death.”

Petegorsky’s newest works similarly toggle between life and mortality, infusing aesthetic life into slices of long-dead animal specimens.

An exhibit of new work by Stephen Petegorsky that open with be on view Nov. 5 though 29 at the A.P.E. Gallery. It will feature at least 20 images of photographs of cleared and stained animal specimens. There will be an artist’s reception Nov. 13 from 5 to 8 p.m. For more information visit


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