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Cutler-Shaw exhibit at Athenaeum combines nature and science

A trio of architects: Rob Quigley, Janice Kay Batter and Michael Batter
A trio of architects: Rob Quigley, Janice Kay Batter and Michael Batter

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

For the past 40 years, Joyce Cutler-Shaw has been exhibiting her drawings, artist’s books and installations at museums and libraries around the world. The artist, who has called La Jolla home since 1959, is currently showing an impressive selection of her slide-out, large-format and “tunnel” books at the Athenaeum, in “What Comes to Mind: Nature-Human Nature and Visual Translation.”

At the Jan. 11 opening, more than 100 art-lovers gathered to admire the exhibit, which continues from the main gallery into the North Reading Room and includes a 10-foot-tall walk-in book that super-sizes an image from Cutler-Shaw’s original “Garden of Wild Birds and Grasses.”

Another, more permanent, version of this piece is on view at the gateway to Stonecrest Village, a housing development in San Diego, in the form of a pair of steel sculptures expressing the artist’s concern with the interplay of natural landscapes and built environments.

“My subjects are human identity and the natural world,” she wrote in an artist’s statement. “My themes are evolution, survival and transformation: from reptile into bird, from mammal to human, and from human, perhaps, to humane.”

Cutler-Shaw, who is artist-in-residence at UCSD School of Medicine, is fascinated with anatomy, and the exhibit includes a small sample of her “Alphabet of Bones,” a unique calligraphy inspired by her detailed drawings of the leg bones of a messenger pigeon.

But the most captivating works here are four wall-mounted tunnel books, framed by her own brain scans, that invite the viewer to contemplate a loop of videotaped “memory pictures” within; it’s the artist’s way of showing how the brain accumulates images from the past, becoming a storehouse of personal and cultural memories.

Jim Stelluti and Carol Buckley
Jim Stelluti and Carol Buckley

Also on display are “Limbs and Trunks,” three-dimensional drawings underscoring the connections between humans and trees, and “What Shall We Do When the River Runs Dry,” wall-mounted slide-out books that act as a visual meditation on the dwindling supply of our most precious resource, water.

Visitors are encouraged to open drawers and peer into cases to discover some of the artist’s interesting but lower-profile works.

This is not Cutler-Shaw’s first show at the Athenaeum, which has a number of her pieces in its permanent collection and was part of a four-library retrospective of her work in 2003. But it’s a show well worth seeing:

“What Comes to Mind” will give you plenty to marvel at and think about.