Vermilion Remains

 

Oil on panel, letterpress, found objects, etched glass, steel

2011

 

Vermilion Remains—named after the Vermilion Sea, an earlier name for the Sea of Cortez—is a project that uses scientific and cultural archives from the mid- century to document the disappearing biodiversity and fishing camp culture of La Cholla, a headland in Mexico along the Sea of Cortez. The installation consists of thirty paintings of various sizes and dimensions, fifteen glass and steel vitrines that display objects of the same era mined from an old dumping site on the headland, and an oversized spool of forty-six different letterpress take-away cards that record fish specimens, fishing shack locations and historical anecdotes.

 

The interplay of mediums—painting, letterpress, and artifact—is allegorical: each element attempts to preserve a fleeting era using outdated technology while inscribing a lost world. This inventory of collected history invites the audience to participate in discovering these stories and lost objects, and by taking a card—partake in their disappearance, even while extending proof of their existence outside the gallery.

 

The paintings depict fish specimens collected from the Upper Sea of Cortez and ephemeral remains of La Cholla’s fishing shacks. Both specimens and fishing shacks date between 1940 and 1970, the latter period overlapping with my childhood exploring a much more bounteous and underdeveloped La Cholla at my grandparent’s small cabin. The fish are painted from photographs I took of jarred specimens from the University of Arizona’s Fish & Invertebrate Collection. Included are a baby hammerhead shark, porcupine fish, sea horses, and a bat ray. Today many of these species, although not extinct, are endangered or rarely seen due largely to unsustainable fishing and development practices.

The vitrines display an assortment of weathered and deteriorating remains of the quotidian culture of the mid-century. Sardine cans and keys, green milk glass, pharmaceutical bottles, doll limbs, rusted cutlery, fishing tackle, broken china, and radio tubes are among the collected artifacts. The objects are arranged as specimens themselves and treated with the care of a museum conservator—grouped into categories based on theme, color, or shape.

 

The letterpress cards have multiple classifications: some name

the actual specimens and include the date and the name of the scientist who collected them; others show the location of each painted fishing shack on a map of the headland; and others document historical anecdotes compiled from interviews or research I conducted. These details provide narrative for the paintings and objects while propagating their stories.

 

Vermilion Remains is at once personal, aesthetic, environmental and cultural, and delves deeply into issues of over-fishing and the erasure of cultural memory. “Untold land is unknown land,” states Lucy Lippard—names, maps and photographs are how we imagine communal history and identity.

 

The project pays homage to a vanishing culture, its modest and idiosyncratic settlement and vast natural abundance—both fading—while simultaneously honoring the species themselves and scientists who have been deeply committed to their study and preservation, even as they document their decline.