The art of preservation
Elisha Masemann surveys the preoccupations behind the lithographs, monotypes and mixed-media drawings of John Pusateri.
John Pusateri is interested in how layers of time and meaning are perceived across collected history. His richly drawn ‘portraits’ of owls, wrens and parrots from the collections of natural history museums shine a light on complex cultural preservations, while probing the human role in speciation and extinction. One of his ongoing motivations, Pusateri says, is to “rifle through the archives of museums with the intention of creating new ‘dioramas’ for seeing things”.
And Pusateri has had a good year of seeing and being seen. In February he won the 2018 New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award with the triptych lithograph Búho y Calavera (Owl and Skull), and he was a travelling finalist in the recent 2018 Wallace Art Awards. Búho y Calavera was produced following a residency in southern California in 2017. Described by judge Dianne Fogwell as “technically exceptional, beautifully balanced and evocative”, the lithograph comprises three iterations of a theme Pusateri has returned to time and again: reflections on mortality and the human desire to preserve moments of existence.
At a basic level, the recurring human skull in the triptych offers a sense of comparative scale for each of the three pictured species of owl. (As lecturer in architecture at Unitec, Pusateri understands the importance of scale.) On another level, the lithograph suggests a relationship between human and non-human systems: each owl bears catalogue tags showing us how it is integrated into a bureaucratic system of museum preservation. Finally, the subject matter is a play on memento mori. Reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, which deliberated on the fragility, transience and vanity of life by way of skulls, burning candles and wine goblets, Pusateri’s poetic yet provocative reflection probes the question of extinction or survival for two types of creature – bird, human – side by side.
Búho y Calavera also demonstrates Pusateri’s ongoing interest in lithography as a medium. Worked primarily on thick slabs of Bavarian limestone in his print studio at Unitec’s Carrington campus, Pusateri’s lithographs are both conceptual and technical markers of process, patience, proficiency and the passage of time. On each stone surface,
oil and water, absorbent and repellent, interact with ink drawn directly onto the slab. Once an edition is printed, after a designated number of impressions, the surface is scoured and the image ground away forever, making each edition a fixed and unique record of its own process. By contrast, Pusateri’s monotype prints of moths and bats are more painterly in appearance, with sequential images gaining from the phantom ink stains of their predecessors. This, he says, is intentional: subtle modifications in the print mimic evolutionary processes, highlighting the subtle variations that occur in biological speciation.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Pusateri completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts with honours, specialising in printmaking, at Syracuse University in New York in 2001. While working towards his degree, he became involved with a programme to run printmaking workshops at several New York correctional facilities, which eventually culminated in an exhibition of works by his students. This experience laid the foundations for a socio-political strand in his practice, influenced by homelessness, police violence, the “myth of justice” and mistaken identity. Pusateri relocated to New Zealand in 2004 to begin a Master of Fine Arts at Elam, where he met artists with similar interests.
At the time of his move, Pusateri was also investigating the response in 1999 to the first reported outbreak of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus in the United States. A virus transmitted across animal species, West Nile was linked to masses of dead crows that appeared to have inexplicably dropped out of the sky in cities where the virus was discovered. The United States Centers for Disease Control began to carry out mass aerial spraying of pesticide and larvicide as a preventative measure.
In New Zealand – a nation with a legacy of contested biodiversity controls – Pusateri found similar examples of particular animal or insect species acting as a harbinger of environmental change, and varied bureaucratic responses.
With a new interest in New Zealand’s conservation measures, Pusateri began cultivating a practice that responds to issues relating to preservation, while reflecting on the fragility of human life.
In his works depicting native and introduced species of birds – owls in particular – Pusateri explores this attempted control of the non-human environment. The series Metamanagement (2015) and Rabbit Destruction Council (2012), for example, reference New Zealand’s Rabbit Nuisance legislation of the 1800s and amendment act of 1947 which, through an advisory body, tried to eradicate the rabbit population responsible for destroying farmland. The Rabbit Destruction Council’s decision to introduce mustelids, and later the myxomatosis virus, to control rabbit populations had devastating consequences for native bird species. “There is a certain paradox,” Pusateri says, “in a human system that attempts to control one introduced species through the introduction of another.” The artist alludes to these questions of power and control – along with the council bureaucracy more specifically – in the titles he gave to his striking portraits of owls: Chief, President, Vice President, Counsellor 1.
Studying this human and natural interface led Pusateri to draw from, photograph, and re-imagine a range of species catalogued in museum collections in New Zealand, the United States and Ireland. “The striking irony of preservation,” he notes, is that “preserving the specimen does nothing to protect it.” In drawing on these repositories of stuffed, preserved or extinct animals – collections that purportedly exist to support life – the artist highlights ambiguities and tensions. The collections also yield historical marks of human interaction. Passages of time can be traced, for example, through catalogue tags, such as that attached to the claw in Bush Wren from the Salted Skin series (2005). “Museum tags document changes in practice over time,” Pusateri says, “firstly in the shift from cursive text to well-written lettering; and then from typewriter to digital font. Over time, residues of formaldehyde and oil travel up the cotton string that attaches the tag to the preserved animal, adding unforeseen vestiges to the catalogue.”
In a sense, Pusateri’s work cuts across the disciplines of printmaking, science and museology. Terms and concepts from zoology, botany, ecology, ornithology, taxidermy, taxonomy and entomology have found new expression in his works. For his first exhibition, Fallen, at Seed Gallery in November 2007, Pusateri collaborated with scientists Dan Blanchon and Mel Galbraith, with guidance from John Early, Curator of Entomology at Auckland War Memorial Museum. This was, in the artist’s words, his “most direct connection with scientific modes of collecting, cleaning, preserving, photographing and cataloguing”. The project involved gathering trapped specimens from two Auckland sites – native bush at Laingholm and a former landfill, now reserve, at Western Springs – into a collated study. The artist and the entomologist then worked to clarify each species. The project brought to light a new species of arachnid, Oplitis pusaterii, duly named after Pusateri.
Scientific cataloguing is just one of the strands in Pusateri’s practice that return time and again to “the striking irony of preservation”. The artist notes that while preserving does not offer future protection, the cultural histories of collecting and preserving animals in artworks are surprisingly relevant today. The 19th-century American naturalist and taxidermist John James Audubon, Pusateri says, “skilfully sought out, observed, identified, killed, stuffed and beautifully depicted many of North America’s native birds… to complete the lithographs in the famous four-volume The Birds of America”. Audubon killed thousands of birds to pose for artworks; yet because some of these species had never before been identified by Western scientists, he was accused of inventing them. Pusateri sees Audubon’s practice as an example of the preservation contradiction: “Often living things are destroyed in order to know, catalogue, and ‘preserve’ them.” As an artist interested in recontextualising historic practices, Pusateri uses the lens of contemporary print to raise questions about how museums incorporate history, especially as they undergo transformation in their missions to educate and preserve.
Questions of conservation management continue as major themes in Pusateri’s work. His latest series, however – New Narratives, a return to the oil medium – is more concerned with “mining the everyday for content” rather than drawing further from museum archives. The works play on the phrase “once upon a time”, questioning how we mark everyday events: “This scene we are seeing, this hour within the scene; the hour in which this scene happened.” The work in oils 2115hrs (2016), for example, captures a moment in time. A close study of a chalice and candlestick on a wooden shelf is set off by the curved stem and vibrant cherry hues of a blossoming tulip under a soft lamplight glow. Other scenes (Camel Leopard, Last Nights Dream) feature animals observed during visits to zoos, set against a patchwork of colourful and stylised vegetation. There are shades of memento mori in the new series, but the overall focus is on recording “striking moments during the day”. Pusateri says he now navigates the world “with an eye on what is visually interesting, for example lighting or a particular arrangement of things”. This suggests a shift in conceptual direction.
By dwelling on the moments that would normally slip by unnoticed, Pusateri portrays them as unsure of themselves or “surreal through sustained focus”. In social theory, the concept of the ‘everyday’ concerns the rendering of monotonous and mundane details of daily routine noticeable. Histories of 20th-century art, too, are peppered with practices designed to make strange that which is most familiar. Pusateri’s new works blend moments of the strange, the conceptual and the daily, yet also show his enduring interest in how we record or preserve moments of time, species, objects. New Narratives thus bears out the human desire to instinctively notice our own existence – or even to control it. Perhaps, too, its attention to small details carries the seed for further projects of seeing things. “I’m open to how my own process might hint at what’s to come,” the artist says.
John Pusateri has work in Paradise Lost: Daniel Solander’s Legacy at Solander Gallery, Wellington, from 8 December 2018 to 9 February 2019. The exhibition will tour regionally through 2019 and to Australian venues in 2020. He is also exhibiting at Whitespace, Auckland, in December.
All artworks by John Pusateri. Courtesy of the artist and Whitespace