Rosamond Purcell’s “Two Rooms,” now at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is the result of a peculiar sort of trans-historical liaison. On one side is Purcell, a contemporary Massachusetts-based artist perhaps best known for the photographs she’s taken in natural-history museums; on the other, Olaus Worm, a 17th-century Danish physician and natural historian whose extensive collection of curiosities is known today through his posthumously published book Worm’s Museum, or History of Very Rare Things, Natural and Artificial, Domestic and Exotic, Which Are Stored in the Author’s House in Copenhagen (1655).
At the heart of the exhibition is an etching of this institution, which reveals it to be a rather humble affair: a single square room, devoid of the ornate cabinetry that often accompanied such collections but packed from floor to ceiling with a fantastic array of objects, from stuffed birds, fish and reptiles to animal skins, shells and bones to ethnographic artifacts and antiquities. Purcell first encountered this image 20 years ago and developed something of an obsession with its intricacies. In a catalog essay that makes an illuminating companion to the show, she describes a poignant admiration for Worm’s philosophies and recounts hours spent gazing into the picture, filled with a “through-the-looking-glass-longing” to see the room as it would have appeared to the proprietor’s contemporaries. It’s a compulsion felt by many a student of history, no doubt, but, being an artist, she was in a unique position to act upon it, and the product is now standing in the Santa Monica Museum: a full-scale, three-dimensional replica.
It was an elaborate undertaking, to say the least, and impressively accomplished. While Purcell herself bemoans “the endless series of compromises” she was obliged to make in assembling the many objects (most of which are authentic — culled from natural-history museums and the like), it would take a fastidious eye to spot the inaccuracies. Indeed, standing before the roped-off entrance to the room feels so much like standing before the reproduced etching propped up next to it that it’s not entirely clear what there is to be gained from all that extra effort.
Considerably more accessible, and ultimately more gratifying, is the exhibition’s second “room” — a reconstruction of Purcell’s own studio. Erected alongside the Worm installation (though not, like that structure, bound by three adjacent walls), the studio houses curiosities of a different sort, most collected from a scrap yard in Owls Head, Maine: piles of water-warped books, bent-up sheets of tin, chunks of melted glass, sun-bleached dolls and warped plastic toys, crumbling scraps of newsprint, fragments of bone, brittle carcasses of insects, and petrified birds.
These aren’t samples or types, like Worm’s objects, woven into a standardized system of classification, but precious oddities: generic objects made unique through processes of dilapidation and decomposition. Purcell gravitates to what she calls “the tail end of familiarity,” relishing objects that have ceased to be recognizable or else have come to look like something else entirely: a book that’s become a mouse nest, for example; a rock that bears the outline of a sleeping monkey; or — one of the loveliest pieces in the collection — a root that resembles the slender, twisting body of a dancer.
Though sprawled loosely across a good half of the gallery — an installation that, in sacrificing a sense of spatial coherence, unfortunately squanders a certain amount of energy — this is a dense collection, into which it would be easy to lose oneself for much of an afternoon. With an indiscriminate blend of found objects and meticulous assemblage (mostly in collage and shallow diorama form), the opportunities for visual contemplation are seemingly endless. One wall, covered with brilliantly oxidized sheets of metal, contains a multitude of engrossing compositions; a single pile of old books boasts a boundless variety of forms; and each assemblage is like a capsule of poetry, layered with nuance.
The pairing of the two collections sets up a curious inversion. If Worm represents an early stage in the Enlightenment-era drive for organization and classification — indeed, he and his peers were still struggling to definitively distinguish animate from inanimate, plant from animal — then Purcell locates herself at the point where such categories begin to break down. While Worm worked to promote an understanding of the natural world that was based in reason and direct observation rather than lore and superstition, Purcell, born well after the triumph of the scientific method, is clearly nostalgic for a time when it couldn’t claim a monopoly. In liberating from neglect these beautifully decaying objects — a gutted old clock, a splitting bowling pin, a blanched soda can covered with barnacles — she’s restoring their sense of mystery.
The quality that most obviously unites them is the obsession of the collector — the compulsion to retrieve, shelter and cherish the loose fragments of the material world. It is a likeness that far outweighs the differences of philosophy and makes the exhibition ultimately feel more like a romance than a debate.
ROSAMOND PURCELL: Two Rooms | At the SANTA MONICA MUSEUM OF ART, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., G1, Santa Monica, (310) 586-6488 | Through August 9