Traditionally, typological surveys have sat outside the ordinary sphere of fine art – in worlds of reportage, information gathering and pure science. The analytical stare of the botanical or anatomical illustrator was never intended to move the soul, only to convey information for comparison and analysis. Yet the fire of scrutiny can often be moving in and of itself, and there is a potency in plain truth. Forgetting the definitions of what is and isn’t ‘art’, ravishing beauty is easy to see in the work of Ferdinand Bauer.
In 1802 Bauer, a leading botanical illustrator, accompanied Matthew Flinders on his pioneering circumnavigation of Australia – tasked with recording species of fauna not seen before in Europe. His survey of several hundred types, published as Illustrationes Florae Novae Hollandiae, is a landmark volume in illustration.
In a similar period Pierre-Joseph Redoute made an exhaustive study of flora and fauna which seems, like Bauer’s work, to straddle parallel worlds – fine art and science, aesthetics and probing analysis.
Typological illustration and gallery art stayed separate until fairly recently, when Postmodernism saw the boundaries blur, often wilfully.
Andy Warhol screenprinted a ‘typology’ of Campbells soup tins – all different, all essentially the same. The series is not about self-expression, that subjective veil through which one privileged, artistic being sees and interprets the world. It’s about mass production of the prints themselves, and of the consumer objects they depict. This is our brave new world.
In a different way, it can be argued that the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre produces typologies. His floor pieces gather different permutations of basic materials, which don’t represent any concept other than the beauty of the things themselves. His life’s work thus forms a kind of extended catalogue of metals and stones. Viewed together they allow us to appreciate and compare the simple visual characteristics of things we might otherwise go a whole lifetime not really seeing; zinc and aluminium, magnesium and steel. Rather than drawing or photographing these things, though, he lays them out on the gallery floor for us to experience.
‘Typologies’ is a lifelong photo project by married couple Hilla and Bernd Becher.
The Bechers photographed industrial structures – cooling towers, blast furnaces and the like – before exhibiting them together in mouthwateringly pure grids which emphasized both their similarities and their small, beautiful idiosyncracies. Their tenacity in finding, travelling to and gaining access to these sites is incredibly impressive. Each gridded artwork is a typological survey, built up in many cases across decades – requiring huge patience to find and photograph the sites in identical light and weather conditions, so they have that elusive feeling of all being snapped on the same day.
More recently. artist Taizo Yamamoto has used a typological survey to hint at the human meaning (and suffering) behind objects, with a series of drawings of the shopping carts in which homeless people keep their belongings. Within the dazzling pencil detail and seductive interplay of light on fabric and plastic lie the never told stories of the owners of the carts, and how they came to be there.
Artist Gregory Blackstock records categories of things, crunching the world down into subsets of his own creation. Rather than attempt one long extended typology, his life’s work consists of putting everything out there on brief, one page lists. Seen as a compendium in book form they make an impressive, eye-watering sight – especially when you learn that, as an autistic savant, he can draw them entirely from memory.
YBA Michael Landy, meanwhile, made his comeback after ‘Break Down’ (the piece where he had all his possessions crushed) with a typological series of traditional etchings that harkened back to the bygone days of botanical illustration. The twist? These weren’t flowers at all, they were weeds – precisely the sorts of pesky, tenacious fauna we try so hard to rid from our gardens, our drains and our pavement cracks. Almost the definition of something never looked at, never loved. Unlike Redoute’s blooms, these weeds have already been pulled up – they’re dead, and the process of their decay is well underway.
To conclude, then; a typological survey of something which never even existed... Artist Stephanie Metz (website here) has created a ‘Teddy Bear Natural History’ from found bears, appropriating display conventions to imagine how their skulls would look preserved in a museum setting. Appropriately enough, the underlying structures of the bears are engineered from felted wool –maintaining their toy-like softness and tactile nature. Yet these skulls, with their sharp teeth, also hint at the true animal nature suppressed within our idealized representation of bears as cute beloved toys – and by extension, perhaps, the folly in all our attempts to sanitize and subjugate the natural world.