The Agony and Ecstasy of Tanya Marcuse’s Labyrinths

DENVER — “Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype?”

This utterance from the Reeve in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400) is most often re-translated as “Until we are rotten, we cannot be ripe.” The quote is apt to Tanya Marcuse’s photography, as seen in Laws of Nature, on display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Inspired by various imaginings of what the untended paradise of Eden became in a Postlapsarian world, the exhibition consists of a video and 11 photographs, eight of which are mural-sized, eye-popping prints of immersive breadth and detail. 

The murals, ranging in size from 5 x 10 to 5 x 13 feet, are crisp and exhaustively detailed from edge to edge. For the series Woven (2015–19), which comprises 10 of the pieces on view, Marcuse sought to find an aspect ratio that would imitate a human’s peripheral vision of 1:2. Her solution was to construct large dioramas in a frame that she has described as “a raised bed tilted up to a 45 degree angle” and then, standing on a scaffold, photograph the interior of the frame. Accumulating and arranging the materials for each composition that fills this frame takes weeks, even months; using a digital camera, the artist makes 20 to 30 exposures that she stitches together. The effect is disorienting, engulfing, and ecstatic, recalling how Rainer Maria Rilke describes angels as both beautiful and terrible.

Consisting of a mostly brown and yellow palette, “Woven N° 17” (2016) stands out for its profusion of deer antlers that jut out at every conceivable angle, some stained with blood. These photographs lend themselves to both macro and micro inspection. From six feet away, the antlers resemble so many mushrooms, or a burial ground of phalluses. Upon a second inspection, I was startled to realize that these weren’t just deer antlers — I had entirely missed that they were still attached to the heads! Feeling compelled to count them, each time I came up with a different number: 28, 29, 31? Finding order in Marcuse’s natural labyrinths proved a futile task, reflecting nature’s inscrutable internal order.

Facing the viewer as they enter the gallery is “N°2 Book of Miracles” (2020) from her newest series, Book of Miracles (2020–ongoing), inspired by the 16th-century Augsburg illuminated manuscript of the same name. Begun during COVID-19 lockdown, this photograph’s color scheme and content are stark departures from the Woven series, though her process remains the same. Against a background of blackish, swampy soil are two giant starburst botanical specimens that bear a close resemblance to the red spiky ball of the virus. A myriad of smaller, similarly structured balls are satellites to the two larger orbs. Running forebodingly across the length of the bottom of the composition is a tangle of vines, leaves, and gold-painted snakes. The whole image is more fantastical than natural.

“N°2” is a teaser of the themes explored in Book of Miracles; as in the Augsburg manuscript, the photograph pulses with miraculous and ominous symbolism. As Laws of Nature moves from the real to other realms, it intimates a paradise lost, metamorphosed into inauspicious phantasmagoria. 

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