By John Paul Stapleton
555 Gallery is currently host to a photography exhibit that goes beyond the present to explore the depths of human nature. In “The Human Diorama,” Bear Kirkpatrick, has brought together portraits and other pieces from his many series to show how people interact with — and adapt — to the natural world.“We are all a learned thing — an ever-gathering and ever-adjusting animal,” Kirkpatrick explains in his artist statement. “It is those traits that I use my camera to find, if only for 1/200th of a second. They are the ghosts of presence and memory, the vestigial elements we carry within and about us as invisibly as spirits.”
These portraits, as the name of the exhibit suggests, are Kirkpatrick’s response to the dioramas he was fascinated by as a kid, but they are displayed, for the most part, on the body of his subject. Now, instead of creating images that explain how groups would interact with a specific environment, he creates a diorama focusing on how the individual instinctually adapts and grows with its surroundings. “Art can be a tool of discovery, it can use science, it can explore,” Kirkpatrick said in a recent interview. “There’s an aesthetic realm to the image, but what else is there?” Just as people have evolved to have different instincts, Kirkpatrick’s methods of creating these dioramas have evolved. In the beginning, subjects would be wrapped in cloth revealing only their face, to place them directly into a well-known painting that hints at how humans interpreted their environments at the time of its creation. This method then moved onto Kirkpatrick covering his models in clay and sticking objects to them such as seeds and other plant materials. This brings an equal focus on the model’s extravagant coating and the painting juxtaposed on them, moving on from interpretation to direct interaction.
In his newest portraits, Kirkpatrick has left paintings behind and uses landscape photographs that he has taken himself to place his models in, but also has moved from plant material to the next step in the kingdoms of life — bugs. “Ruari: Euchroma Gigantea” is one of his newest dioramas; it features a model covered in the bugs named in the title. The bugs are gathered on the neck completely covering it as if to show suffocation by the species. This dark feeling is enhanced by the landscape he is placed in which is dark, gray and raining as can be seen by the disturbances in the body of water behind the model. Along with the still life portraits, Kirkpatrick has also created video portraits. These videos are a mix of small bursts of video mixed in with edited photographs blended in a seamless way. The pieces are all shot with 4k cameras, the highest resolution currently possible, and come complete with a soundtrack to aid the ominous images. The most recent example of this is “Sage: Heterometrus Laoticus,” in which the model’s neck is covered in scorpions and placed in front of an ever-changing landscape. The viewer, at first, doesn’t notice anything specifically moving besides the slight motion of the model and the intentionally slowed blinking. As the video goes on, it becomes noticeable that the scorpions on her neck start to curl their tails in and out to match the changing light and weather of the landscape behind her.
Kirkpatrick’s stunning images shed light on how humans fundamentally affect and are affected by their environment in a way that’s accessible to observers of art and science alike. The growth and development of his concept provides a visible progression in the timeline of his work that upholds aesthetic pleasure since the beginning and leads to a hopeful future for his striking portraits.
This exhibit provides a glimpse of that timeline and is not worth missing for anyone interested in this brand of directorial photography that Kirkpatrick has installed at 555 Gallery. (Bear Kirkpatrick: The Human Diorama continues through August 1 at 555 Gallery, 555 East Second Street, Boston. until August 1. For more information, call (857) 496-7234.)