Buggin’

When I have a bug problem, I call an exterminator. But maybe I should call an artist instead.

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I once spent a year living in a quaint, drafty first-floor apartment. Moving in and out was a breeze, and 2 AM dog walks were slightly more bearable without having to schlep up and down flights of stairs half-asleep in my slippers. One of the prices you pay for a first floor abode, however, is and always will be bugs, which are (usually) most unwelcome roommates. Centipedes, ants, gnats, silverfish – I’ve seen them all. Many a lazy Sunday afternoon was ruined by the discovery of translucent-black creatures poised on an armrest reading over my shoulder. As if they could even begin to grasp the depth of Haruki Murakami’s prose. 

 

And so a chain of events transpired that ultimately led to a close friendship between myself and the friendly neighborhood exterminator, who despite his disdain for troublesome, tiny beasts became quite fond of my chihuahua. Every month the exterminator would come by, spraying the bugs away and making my life spider-free. However, I recently encountered some objects that had me rethinking my decision to call for reinforcements.

It turns out I may have wasted my abundant multi-legged creepy-crawly corpses. From damselflies to cicadas to mantises, artist Christopher Marley repurposes actual insects in his colorful mosaic works. Though they’re currently displayed next to rooms full of taxidermied lions, tigers, and bears at the The Academy of Natural Sciences, the works in “Pinned: Insect Art, Insect Science” aren’t dioramas. Deceased, preserved bugs are pinned carefully into intricate patterns and fitted carefully into frames. Sometimes the bugs were enhanced with paint, but often, the brilliant colors in the arrangements were totally natural.

What makes the collection even more interesting is its close proximity to the live butterfly exhibit, appropriately named “Butterflies!” Before perusing Marley’s bugs, I schlepped through the walk-through room, swatting and shooing the creatures away until I realized how truly beautiful they are. The magnificent colors and delicate, decisive movement of their wings as they floated through the temperature-controlled pseudo-wilderness gave me a change of heart. One might say that my heart grew three sizes that day, melting my Grinch-like hatred of little-legged and crawly things.

So, I was in the perfect state of mind to appreciate Marley’s work “Colure,” closely examining the delicately fanned-out butterfly carcasses glued to paper. Whether you know this species of butterfly as “whites,” “sulphers,” “The Great Orange Tip,” or “Hebomoia glaucippe,” their bold color contrast is striking. Marley describes his use of eight of the creatures as a “solar eclipse” because of the clean white, burnt orange, and deep black hues juxtaposed with each other. I stood in front of this piece unable to look away, mesmerized by the natural symmetry on their wings and perfection of their arrangement on the paper. One wing of each butterfly is suspended at ninety-degree angle from the paper in frame, bringing a dynamic three-dimensionality to a perfect arrangement.

Although the works in this particular exhibit, like “Colure,” are bursting with bright colors, Marley wasn’t always so quick to use his beloved bugs. It seems that he and I share the same original sentiment: he despised insects as a child. He changed his tune once he discovered a use for them beyond the backyard, beyond the classic childhood sun and magnifying glass combination. He integrates a concise yet detailed display of a natural creature in a most unnatural way, which is often why his works are backdropped by graphite or clean white materials. The bugs are the focus; they are all that matters. Of his artistic process, Marley writes on his gallery website: “I needed to take these enigmatic creatures as far as possible out of their natural context, where I had studiously avoided them for so many years.”

Unfortunately, my newfound bug appreciation didn’t last as long as Marley’s. “Pinned” also includes a few more scientific pieces, including a grasshopper carcass nearly twelve inches in length. I was once again the Grinch, cringing my way through the rest of the informative, but much less artful, displays.

I will probably continue avoiding bugs as they traipse their way through my new apartment like they own the place, but I do have a solemn respect for those that can look at an object and consider it beyond its most obvious, basic functions. Maybe the next time you drown a hanging spider in the shower, you could consider giving its death a purpose. Dry off that fuzzy, fanged arachnid, grab some glue and a canvas, and use it to kick off your next creative project. This new conversation piece probably won’t look even close to as impressive as Marley’s “Colure,” but at least you would have a better excuse for squashing that eight-legged thing than simply being afraid of it. Or, you could just befriend your local exterminator. • 6 October 2014

Alyssa Shaw is an English major and graduate education student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

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