Martha Glowacki’s latest show combines animal and industrial bones

The installation artist continues to probe at our perspectives of the natural and scientific in a new exhibition at Stoughton’s Abel Contemporary Gallery.

The installation artist continues to probe at our perspectives of the natural and scientific in a new exhibition at Stoughton’s Abel Contemporary Gallery.

Photo: Martha Glowacki’s installation piece “Mouse King” consists of a group of five mouse skeletons with intertwined tails, surrounded by a series of mirrors.

Martha Glowacki’s latest show makes its venue so integral to the art that it’s impossible to think of these mixed-media and installation works without letting the space bleed in, even though Glowacki has displayed most of them in other settings before. The show, Rituals And Reenactments, is on display through December 31 at Stoughton’s Abel Contemporary Gallery, and Glowacki will give a virtual talk about it on November 18 at 5 p.m. through the gallery’s website and Facebook page

The gallery’s current home in downtown Stoughton originally served as a tobacco warehouse, built in 1891. When Abel moved from its original location in Paoli, the building got some new white gallery walls and was also largely stripped back to original elements, exposing the well-worn wooden planks that made up the walls and floors, and the roof beams in the second-story area that Glowacki’s show occupies, which is set apart from the rest of the gallery and dubbed “no. 5.” Two of this room’s walls are conventional white gallery walls, while the other two and the floor show the bones of the place.   

On her way into no. 5 for an interview last week, Glowacki pointed out a wall plank where someone, perhaps a warehouse worker killing time during a shift a century ago, had doodled a tobacco pipe. Another plank in the doorway to the gallery space is stamped with the words “PORTO RICO.”

This dark wood, scuffed from decades of industrial use, helps to draw the viewer into Glowacki’s multitude of earthy colors, materials, textures, and finishes. Walking in, the viewer faces two unfinished walls, a pair of mirror-box pieces, a taxidermied chicken—coated in ashen graphite—standing atop a wheeled truck. Around the gallery are also several 19th-century photographic portraits. History combines with storytelling, poetry runs alongside scientific treatises, found objects intermingle with elaborate fabrications, scenes (however painstakingly posed) from real human life blur into eerie vignettes of plant and animal life.

A drawing of a pipe on a wood plank at Abel Contemporary Gallery.

The two mirror-box pieces, “Mouse King” and “Silver Forest,” each consist of a circular, chamber of polished wood, about 20 inches wide, sitting atop round bases of black and red turned brass and severe black cloth, with all of that mounted on cast-iron drafting-table bases. Glowacki reports that the bases weigh a ton. The viewer looks down into each upon a scene endlessly reflected back and forth in a complex of eight mirrors, multiple perspectives overlapping at once. In “Silver Forest,” Glowacki uses cast elm twigs to suggest cutover woods. Look closely and these unnaturally silver twigs are sprouting new life, in the form of tender sumac branches and cast bumblebees, evoking a cycle of destruction and regeneration. 

“Mouse King” riffs on the grisly spectacle of the rat king, a group of rats with intertwined tails. “Mice, they should be able to have a king too,” Glowacki says. So, she used the skeletons of five dead mice found on her property, posing them with their tails each wrapping around a central post. Glowacki, ever fascinated with a range of esoteric materials and processes, quips: “If you need a woman to reconstruct your mouse skeleton, I’m your woman.” Depending which mirrors you look into from which angle, the postures of these skeletal mice could appear threatening or desperately vulnerable. 

“They’re playful,” Glowacki says of these two pieces. “Sometimes they can be a little frightening, I guess.” For someone whose work uses so many literal dead animals, Glowacki comes off as remarkably cheerful. The unmistakable morbid streak in these pieces never goes for trivial shock value—it’s one shade in a more complex exploration of the natural world and how humans unpack it.

“One thing that interests me is optics,” Glowacki explains of the impetus behind the two mirror-box pieces. “When perspective rules for painters and architects were developed in the Renaissance, you had this way of making an illusion of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional plane. As soon as that happened, people started messing around with it: ‘How can we make tricks and special inside jokes and things like that with optics?’ And at the same time, mirrors were being developed, but they were very rare and they were very precious. So there were objects that were being made, and I’ve seen drawings of these in 16th century books or 17th century books that show different kinds of illusions with mirrors. Some of them are called anamorphic illusions, where you have something like a cylinder or a cone that’s got a mirror surface on it, and you’d have a distorted drawing of a painting that’s arrayed around the outside of that, and when you get to a particular spot and look at it, it’s all resolved and you see it in its proper proportions. So that could be used for a political statement or a scatological joke, or a beautiful image.”

Glowacki has long drawn on her interest in the history of science to create pieces that contain a lot of space of their own, often in the form of shadow boxes and large multi-compartment cabinets filled with specimens both real and imagined. Perhaps most famously/notoriously, her piece My Arcadia, on permanent display at the Chazen Museum of Art, features a drawer containing a desiccated, graphite-coated cat. Glowacki  explained that the cat is indeed real, and that workers renovating a friend’s property found it already dead. Some of the animals come to her already taxidermied, including the aforementioned chickens, and some turn up as roadkill near Glowacki’s home in northwestern Dane County. 

Two of these rural-road casualties form the centerpiece of the current show’s most audacious installation, “Als’s Orchestration.” Two squirrels, dusted in gold, ascend a vertical tree limb. One perches at the top and extends a paw straight up, toward one of several crown-like circular objects hanging from the ceiling beams. It’s as if the squirrel is reaching into some strange portal toward another dimension, perhaps trying to ascend to the rodent version of the Heaviside Layer. In another of the suspended gold crown-portals, Glowacki has installed a wasp nest, also covered in gold coating.

“You’ve got these different layers going up into the sky, and of course a squirrel would try to climb into that, and a hornet would build a nest,” Glowacki says. Next to all this is a pile of golden braids that call back to how Glowacki wore her hair as a child.

That surprisingly isn’t her actual hair, but it does pick up on another prominent theme of Rituals And Reenactments: Glowacki’s interest in digging up historical objects that offer a window into domestic life. She worked at the Wisconsin Historical Society for a number of years, getting a lot of hands-on experience with such remnants from across her home state’s past.

“The kind of stuff I was cataloguing for them, looking at new things that were being brought in that they were considering whether they wanted to accession or not, it was all artifacts that were not clothing, were not archeology, not weapons,” Glowacki says. “So it was all this domestic kind of stuff. Furniture and tools and implements that you would use to cook with. All that kind of stuff. I got really much more interested in the process of looking at historical objects. I’ve also been interested in using found materials for a long time, and so I’ve built these pretty extensive collections of components that I want to use in my work.”

In one of the historical photographs Glowacki collected over the years, she found something of an avatar or alter ego. Mounted on one of the space’s white gallery walls, the photo shows a woman posed in formal dress, holding a hardcover book. A friend of Glowacki’s figured out that the book is Henry Davenport Northrop’s Earth, Sea And Sky: Or, Marvels Of The Universe, first published in 1887. In what Glowacki describes in the show’s artist statement as an “eerie coincidence,” it turned out that another friend had recently given her a copy of the same book. That copy sits on a platform in front of the portrait, bridging the show’s domestic themes and its strong emphasis on natural history.

Rituals And Reenactments also reaches back to another show where the location itself served as an essential element. The five-piece print work “Natural Philosophies” grew from Glowacki’s 2005 show at UW-Madison’s Washburn Observatory, Starry Transit. For that show, Glowacki drew on scientific charts, texts, and instrumentations—collaborating with UW’s Department of Astronomy, as well as incorporating poetry from Madison-based writer and artist Mary Mercier and a sound installation by Madison-based musician and sound engineer John Feith—to explore how migratory birds find their way at night. “I think in my life as an artist, it was the best project I did,” Glowacki says.

“Natural Philosophies,” via Tandem Press.

Because the observatory was completed in 1881, Glowacki looked to late-19th-century research and materials from UW-affiliated scientists, including star charts. A few years after the Starry Transit exhibition, Glowacki collaborated with printmaker Jason Ruhl at Tandem Press to digitally invert the colors of the original document, resulting in a piece that captures the sumptuous blue-black of a clear night sky—in striking contrast with the rugged color palette that predominates elsewhere in Rituals And Reenactments

Across this celestial field, Glowacki arrays diagrams of bird skeletons, diagrams of birds in flight, and text from three different sources. Two of those sources are scientists who tried to understand whether night-flying birds navigate using the stars or some other means. (One experiment involved putting birds in a planetarium and getting them confused for a few days—before they somehow righted their course.) Another is a poem Mercier wrote specifically for the piece, “Snow Geese.” Different styles of typography across Natural Philosophies‘ five panels denote different ways of looking at the complexity of avian life—sober serif text for the ornithologists, gracefully curving script for the poet. In one stanza, Mercier herself tackles some of the theories scientists have proposed over the years, but infuses them with a sense of romance and wonder:

In daylight the sun gives direction,

and the landscape becomes its own map.

But when the day is wrapped in clouds or when

the stars are hidden, the show geese do not hesitate,

they hurry on.

For there is still the birth core of the planet—

that magnetic field so wild and remote

that no one yet has managed to divert it.

It follows its own path, scattering auroras

and drawing its curved lines around the globe.

It gives this map to the beaks of birds

whose own bits of iron

are compass enough. Perhaps we all

once felt the planet’s tremolo—

we traveled then like snow geese in the dark.

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