Nature is bizarre, so who's to say that there isn't a giraffe that evolved with zebra stripes, a crane with a serpentine neck or a stag with antlers sprouting 10 feet from its head?
Timothy Chapman was en route to a biology degree in college, but instead veered toward the aesthetic absurdities of nature, specifically natural history illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries, which documented strange creatures with differing degrees of exactness.
"They just got details wrong or invented details when illustrating a certain animal or plant," Chapman said. "I love that because you can't quite tell what is real and what is fantastic. Zebras were drawn with different patterns or giraffes in impossible poses, because at that time, there were no photographs available."
Chapman recreates that blurry imagining in paintings he calls "invented natural history" in an upcoming display at JRB Art at the Elms gallery in The Paseo. The opening reception is 6 p.m. Friday, as part of a show that also features 3-D, mixed-media works by Kim Camp and botanical assemblages by Paul Medina.
The Arizona-based Chapman said finding ways to tweak nature appeals to his fascination with the aesthetic beauty of animals and plants, but also gives his work an appeal that a scientifically accurate painting wouldn't. Audiences might breeze over a painting of a bear, no matter how skilled it may be, but if that bear is floating, they tend to linger. When painting cacti or other plants, Chapman enjoys viewers puzzling over whether or not the plant actually exists.
"I want to tell lies convincingly, but if I make it too fantastic, then it'll become blatantly obvious," he said. "I like to take into account things like size versus gravity. You couldn't have something too large and have it function if gravity will just weigh it down. I do try to take the environment and the social life and biology of the animal into account."
He is already playing a bit of theoretical evolutionist with his work, but is looking forward to a series where he take the process one step further.
"I'd like to take animals and evolve them further or evolve them as if they'd been living on an undiscovered continent or island," Chapman said. "That would be a blast, but I don't want to get too fantastic. Some of the patterns on some of giraffes and zebras I've already done probably do not exist, but there are flowers that do actually have checkers on them and that does not seem like an organic possibility, either."
When asked if he'd ever wander into complete absurdity like the beasts depicted in Dr. Seuss illustrations, Chapman just laughed and said "not yet." For the time being, he thinks just small embellishments on the already peculiar animal world are interesting enough.
"Nature gets pretty wild, bizarre and alien to us," he said. "Animals are fascinating to us because we are more similar than we like to admit."