Evolution, Jeremy Johnson and Aaron Kent

October 22nd, 2013  |  Published in *, October 2013

Evolution, Jeremy Johnson and Aaron Kent

At Prairie Gallery

By Matthew Metzger


Science is fertile ground for mystery. Neo-Platonic notions of the fertility of the soil; animal magic; the cooperation of the tribe; the numinous atmosphere; the ungraspable vastness of the universe; infinity; the void. Our best scientists are by necessity also poets and artists.  In the end, are the three really different? The dualism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment (in the unfortunate Western sense of the word) conveniently bifurcated these concepts for us in the name of knowledge, progress, and the elevation of man. One mustn’t necessarily hold archaic values to think of art and science in other, more ancient, non-dualist terms. Robert Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology comes to mind. Whether intentional or not, Jeremy Johnson’s and Aaron Kent’s Evolution at Prairie Gallery steps foot into this non-dualist void.

Great Malay Argus Pair, 2012.


Kent shows sculptures cast from bone forms. Johnson is revisiting taxidermy, an old craft (or science), this time as art. The show conjures Jim Harrison’s notion to rename all of the birds of North America, a truly noble poetic endeavor. John James Audubon, a self-taught genius, took it upon himself to paint those birds. Audubon left his job in Cincinnati as a taxidermist at a museum about 190 years ago, gun and paint box in tow, down the Ohio to the Mississippi River.  In nineteen years, he hunted, documented and painted nearly every bird species in eastern North America. About 20 years later on another giant river, the Amazon, Alfred Russell Wallace (who Johnson and Kent reference in their work) was undertaking his research that would lead to his theory of evolution through natural selection. Not long after, Nietzsche gave us the idea of the “eternal recurrence” (really, an ancient idea), in which events recur infinitely across infinite time and infinite space.  Then, he attacked a man for beating a horse and went insane. Growth, decay, rejuvenation, and cycles are all themes in this show.  So is death. What of the eternal recurrence?

These may be coincidences. But in any case, this time around Beuys’ coyote is dead, it’s skull now presented as sculpture by Johnson.  The performance is over.  There are no more tricks from the Jungian tragic trickster hero. Taxidermy has been done before, but Johnson is beating no horse, dead or alive (as an aside, Johnson has not shown us a horse, yet).  Johnson puts no flowers on these stuffed dogs, Jeff Koons be damned. These sculptures are authentic, bare and naturalist, like Lorca’s mountains “bare of impressionistic fog.”

Desk Installation


The Victorian era that gave us taxidermy also gave us a rigid Puritanism that still permeates and suffocates.  Johnson’s sculptures are not rigid, like their Victorian predecessors, but organic reflections on time. The animal is the medium.  They are alive, paradoxically. In them there is the notion, clichéd because of its inclusion in so many of the self-help books we are cursed with, that to live a life fully we better as hell accept death. Their vulnerability is refreshingly mature, thoughtful, slow. Perhaps another sign of a moving tide toward a more mature contemporary art.  Leave it to the fear of death to allow for that.  Is the smell of our mortality that of fresh cut bone?

Bones 13


Kent’s sculpture lacks the element of myth I experience in Johnson’s work.  He presents sculptures of bone forms cast in bronze, aluminum and plaster, as well as digital prints of those sculptures.   He continually revisits the spiral. It being autumn, the cycle of life, death, growth and decay is in the air. Kent gets that and his art does a good job of communicating it.

Despite all this, I want more. This show asks us to believe that taxidermy and cast bones can be art (and they can), but then why all the didactic science, the explaining, the processes, the empiricism, the materialism.  A discussion around the collapse of the unnecessary dualism between science and art is revolutionary and much needed, this show being a perfect platform, but no mention of that here.  According to the gallery catalogue, Johnson represents “some of the animals in his or her natural state”, and alters others to “question man’s relationship to the natural environment.”  He does.  But the answer to the question of our relationship to “the natural environment” (as opposed to the unnatural one?) is a simple answer, and one that this show answers simply and implicitly: we are part of nature and potentially the most destructive part of it. Questions with answers are uninteresting, surfaces a bore.

To me this work could be so much more than that. Johnson shows us the insides (literally), the guts, intestines, bones; he shows us the shadows. At risk of being the critic who critiques the show I hoped to have seen, rather than the one actually presented, I’d like more attention to the subtle metaphysical, mysterious, mystical aspect of this work. Of course, in our postmodern madness, mysticism isn’t something one wears on one’s sleeve. Perhaps Johnson and Kent are smart (if not coy) by avoiding the subject. But what is it about a dead animal artfully presented as sculpture, capturing the essence of animalness, that reminds me of cave paintings, an Ezra Pound poem, a perfect coq au vin and Burgundy?  Our memories are long and unnavigable. The most famous naturalist, Darwin, wrote The Descent of Man and mentioned “survival of the fittest” twice and “love” 95 times, or something like that. I want this work to take me to a place that explores things utterly intangible (not necessarily love, although that would be just fine).

On September 11, 2001, high powered random number generators around the world stopped being random. No one knows why exactly, but scientists expect something to do with a mass mind. I’ll defer to the Aztecs. The implication is that our grieving affected everything, not just random number generators.  Collective human emotion is profound.  The bifurcation of science, poetry, art, craft and design has taken us far enough, if it has taken us anywhere at all. Quantum entanglement proves that everything really is connected (look it up), as the ancients always suspected.  Reality, we are finding, is the sum total of every living thing’s consciousness; or, as Einstein said, “the field is the only reality.” To deal with this new (yet ancient) conception of reality we’re going to have to start embracing something more akin to mysticism in our art (which is to say our lives, a Beuysian concept). Something a lot more transcendent than the shows addressing the same cultural, socioeconomic or political babble, or worse, shows capitalizing on celebrity that we’ve become accustomed to (at least in this fine city). Here’s to a good start, whether intentional or not, with Johnson and Kent’s Evolution.



Matthew Metzger is an artist, designer and furniture maker based in Cincinnati.  His paintings are represented locally by Miller Gallery, and his furniture by Voltage, as well as other galleries and design showrooms nationally.  His website is www.metzgerfinearts.com.

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