A STRANGE BEAUTY, Westward Review

"Medusa Bones," by John Bonath, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

John Bonath on A Strange Beauty at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Photographer John Bonath’s spectacular three-level show, A Strange Beauty, which opened at the end of September at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, encourages visitors to explore a massive, hidden-away portion of the museum collection in an unusual and contemporary way. The hand-chosen objects that Bonath re-examined through an imaginative lens for the exhibition not only take on a new life, but encourage an entirely new audience to step over into the realm of art appreciation. And for Bonath, this is a welcome step outside of the usual gallery experience, where people of all ages are invited to participate in the creative process.

Bonath and DMNS zoology collections manager Jeff Stephenson will offer some insight into the show’s art/science crossover during a lecture tonight at 7 p.m. at the museum.

“It’s more than a show,” Bonath says of the mammoth exhibit, which encompasses 62 large-scale works. “It’s more like three huge solo shows on three floors. There’s been nothing like that ever before there. They’ve never, ever used the third floor of that space for anything, but it’s such a great space.” And just as the show brings the archive out in the open, it also represents a rare collaboration between museum scientists and the artist.

"Rhino Pupa," by John Bonath

“They’ve been so supportive,” Bonath explains. “I’ve worked with so many people in different departments and programs — all these managers and curators in the collections, the productions team — that I felt like I needed to clone myself just to try and keep up with them.”

It also helps that Bonath had nearly complete freedom in his use of the vast collection. “I could look through 1,500 things, going through drawer after drawer,” he remembers. “It was such an adrenaline rush. I would take little snapshots to remember what I think I might want to review, maybe 150 of them, and then I’d spend hours going over them to edit them down and come up with ideas. So I would eventually edit my list down to ten, and then I’d e-mail the manager and say, ‘I would like to work with these things. What is their status?’ The collections are open to the public, but nobody knows they exist, and getting access to them is not so easy. I come in and start showing people this whole world behind the scenes, and it’s win-win for everybody. I can bring the collection to the people, who will see it in a different way.”

"Artemis and Actaeon," by John Bonath

Though he doesn’t admit it, in conversation Bonath reveals himself to be something of a scientist, too, ever concerned with things that most of us don’t think about, like the way light can affect how we see a work of art.

Some of the pieces in the show, which are built up with pigments, have a dimensional quality and an iridescence that are enhanced by the glare from the museum atrium’s three-story wall of windows. “It brings out little things you might see only in certain instances,” Bonath notes. “That glare adds a thing that no one’s ever seen in them before, and it changes at different times of day.”

Now that the exhibit is up, Bonath is also finding that a show at an institution like the DMNS offers a better way to connect people to the art experience. “The more I work in art, the more I get tired of things being so inaccessible to people,” he says. “At some galleries, there’s somebody in every corner of every nook standing there to make sure I don’t touch the art. At the Nature & Science museum, there are kids bouncing around, people talking. People are excited, and the air feels alive. It’s real. I love going there for so many reasons.

“After the public wandered in and saw it, a seventy-year-old lady called the museum,” he adds. “At length, she went on, reprimanding then for not promoting the show better. She said, ‘I’m seventy years old, and I don’t know much about art, but this kid is a genius. Seeing this show is like hearing a Mozart sonata for first time.’ I get choked up thinking about that.”

A Strange Beauty remains on view at the DMNS, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, through next February.

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