Michael Mapes turns the art of collecting into a science. The artist curates specimen boxes that capture his subjects' essences in a unique artistic process similar to collecting insects and pinning them in place. This process of displaying an individual's essence is both literal and metaphoric, involving body parts like eyelashes, dried tears, and photos of a finger stuffed into a vial, as well as more poetic associations like pet hairs. The collection categorizes human moments in maddening detail, collapsing the poetic and the biological to yield hauntingly beautiful effects.
We asked Mapes some questions about his work. Scroll down to see the slideshow.
HP: Why do you call your works 'specimens'?
MM: I like "specimens" because of its scientific reference. Calling the human subjects by name would introduce a personal aspect that I don't want. "Specimens" is intended to connect them to their species and hopefully broadens contemplation and encourages a more inclusive experience. At the same time, it doesn't necessarily dismiss any interest in thinking about them as unique individuals.
I've always loved insect collections. I still don't think of who caught and pinned them, although I praise the artistic and decorative value. I also understand the insects have a greater relationship to their species than being considered in any individual sense. There's an anonymity or depersonalization that appeals to me about that, although I realize it's limitation for advancing a career in art.
HP: What are your works made of and what is the significance of these materials?
MM: Much of my work has a photographic basis, which is far more practical than dissecting the actual subjects. I take all of the photos but more significant than that (as I'm not a photographer) is the time I spend with the subject. It's when I start considering what materials to collect and form early notions of the compositions of the work. Depending on the subjects, the boxes generally include hundreds of photographic samples and "personal/biographical DNA" such as eyelashes, fingernails, fingerprints, dried tears, pet hair, botanical material, and family matter. It's interesting, if not at times disturbing, to work with this kind of material. (True for the subjects, as well.) This content is contained within plastic bags, magnifying boxes, glass vials, gelatin capsules, petri dishes, and on thousands of insect pins. The creative use of scientific materials, which is much easier than actual science or conventional artistic media, provides the metaphorical dimension.
HP: How do you choose your subjects?
MM: My methods vary, but I tend to choose subjects that represent interesting and willing examples of their species. With humans, this often translates to friends or people I meet with interesting visual features. On some occasions, subjects choose me. I appreciate when this happens as they are very enthusiastic and finance my work in the form of commissions. I'm always looking for more of these kind of specimens.
HP: What work of art or artist has been inspiring you lately?
MM: I have a niece, Olivia Suffern, a freshman at Pratt who made a painting that made me laugh. As I'm told, pressed by a deadline and daunted by a blank canvas, she thought to paint over an earlier high school work (an interesting idea). Discouraged, she then hoped to improve things by adding collage elements (an impulse I can appreciate) until eventually realizing what she had created - precisely the kind of work that got thoroughly dismissed in a recent student exhibit. So, she painted a toad on it. To her relief, the professor fully appreciated it.
See a slideshow of Mapes' work below: