The curator is a relatively new figure in the art world, but the practice of organizing objects into comprehensive categories for study or display is centuries old. Ben Colman, himself a new curator at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn. — he joined a year ago — has resurrected an 18th-century model for organizing “Animal/Vegetable/Mineral: An Artist’s Guide to the World,” an exhibition of 105 artworks.
Mr. Colman borrowed his idea (and his title) from the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who proposed in his “System of Nature” (1735) that “man, when he enters the world, is naturally led to enquire who he is; whence he comes; whither he is going; for what purpose he is created ...” (Art aficionados will hear the echoes of an 1897 painting by Paul Gauguin, made during his years in Tahiti but derived from a catechism class in his youth: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”)
An Enlightenment-era scientist, Linnaeus suggested dividing the observable, physical world into “three kingdoms”: animals, vegetables and minerals. A wall text describes how his concept has been retooled ever since, even showing up as the title of a 1950s British television game show, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?”
The Griswold exhibition space is divided into three rooms, conveniently accommodating this show’s construct. The first room, “Animal,” includes portraits and still lifes, but also some curiosities. The portraits are arranged for the most part into men on one wall and women on another. They include the deceptively simple, but sharply defined, “Portrait of Katherine Salisbury Newkirk Hickok,” from around 1825, by the folk artist Ammi Phillips, and a moody
self-portrait by Willard Metcalf, an American Impressionist, which he painted around 1890, shortly after returning from an extended sojourn abroad.
Also in the “Animal” room are undated illustrations of meadowlarks and cowbirds by Roger Tory Peterson, who gained fame for his 1934 book “A Field Guide to the Birds,” and a painting by Gurdon Trumbull, “Black Bass” (1872). Edward Volkert specialized in cattle, and his canvases from the early 20th century — several are included here — show a romanticized view of rural life during a time of rapid industrialization. Matilda Browne’s “Cornfield Point,” from around 1910 and set in Old Saybrook, shows cattle resting at night. “Brown Dog” (2009), two from a series of paintings by the contemporary artist Allison Maletz, isolates the animal in a stark field of white; its muzzle is turned away from the viewer, creating a kind of abstract shape that is still identifiable. The most engaging object in the room is a large cabinet that belonged to Metcalf and contained his collection of birds’ nests, eggs, butterflies and moths. Metcalf, among the first American artists to visit Giverny, Claude Monet’s estate, served as a tutor to the French artist’s children. Two drawers of the dark cabinet are open, revealing carefully wrapped and labeled birds’ eggs and nests, some of which were collected in the 1880s at Givenchy.
The “Vegetable” room contains, predictably, landscapes and additional still lifes. Three diminutive landscapes by some of the luminaries of the Hudson River School — Thomas Cole and John F. Kensett — are hung cater-corner to a large, bright watercolor of the local Lieutenant River by the contemporary artist Nancy Friese.
Three paintings by William R. Wheeler, the Post-Impressionist artist ede-else and Charles Ethan Porter depict a watermelon, apples and strawberries. There is also a lineup of peonies, thistles and roses; a third grouping focuses on trees, as in Church’s “The Charter Oak at Hartford” (1846).
The centerpiece in this room is a contemporary work by the duo Kahn & Selesnick (Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick): an installation comprising photos, drawings and a sculpture depicting a modern-day take on the Greenman, a figure from European folklore that suggested a kind of fertility figure (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight derive from this lineage). In addition to photographs like “Cabbage Head” (1997) and “Yew Man” (1997), which recall the vegetable portraits of the Italian artist Arcimboldo, there is a table with two “Greenman” figures (2013) seated at it: one made with oak leaves, the other with moss.
The exhibition stumbles somewhat in the “Mineral” room. How to describe minerals — Linnaeus equated them with stones and rocks — and, more important, how to link them with art? A wall text offers a slightly tortured explanation of how the works here “negotiate a space between” subjects and objects, with the artwork functioning at times as “merely the physical residue of a conceptual investigation.” But “Mineral” might be more simply thought of as the material world and its modern dematerialization, which took the form of abstraction.
An entire wall is devoted to that idea. There are abstract paintings and prints by Anni and Josef Albers, German members of the Bauhaus who became Connecticut residents after Mr. Albers started teaching at Yale in the 1950s, as well as by Harry Holtzman, an American disciple of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian who later became the executor of Mondrian’s estate. (The Griswold is mounting a major Holtzman retrospective in the fall.) There are also geometric near- abstractions by Sascha Braunig, a contemporary artist, hung near two Sol LeWitt paintings and, in a nice touch of incongruity, a trompe l’oeil painting from around 1890, “The Clay Pipe” by John Haberle.
In old cabinets of curiosity, objects from the natural world were displayed alongside artworks and given equal billing. Later, art and nature parted ways, with museums emerging devoted to one “kingdom” or another. (In New York, museums devoted to art and natural history sit on opposite sides of Central Park.) Part of what Mr. Colman has done is bring the two together a bit, as well as remind us that the curator’s craft is rooted in just this impulse to organize and arrange — and to answer, even provisionally, Linnaeus’s questions about who we are, whence we come, whither we are going and for what purpose we were created. “Animal/ Vegetable/Mineral: An Artist’s Guide to the World,” is at the Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, through Sept. 22, 2013.