ST. PETERSBURG — Beyond the sheer scale, placement and amount of insects, the most striking thing about this exhibition is that Jennifer Angus had a hand in everything.
Yes, we said insects. “'The Grasshopper and the Ant’ and Other Stories as Told by Jennifer Angus,” now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, is a vibrant world of wild imagination, all revolving around creepy crawlers.
Angus made the jelly in jars containing dried insects that glow luminously from a darkened tunnel called the Ant’s Pantry. She meticulously arranged the colorful, exotic bugs into patterns like neo-Victorian wallpaper in a garden she conceived, and placed them just so to spell out messages. She cast wax flowers and designed the purple butterfly wallpaper on which her own etchings hang. She painstakingly mended damaged insects into hybrid creatures, which she artfully made into scenes in drawers, bell jars and boxes along with other collected items. And to top it off, her children’s book, In Search of Goliathus Hercules, is for sale in the gift shop.
Angus has been at this practice for 20 years and is a professor in the design department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Originally from Canada, she was a textile artist who discovered the practice of using insect wings as adornment while traveling in Southeast Asia.
The insects mostly come from farms or the collections of indigenous people in Madagascar, Malaysia, Thailand and New Guinea. They aren’t endangered, but their abundance points to the disappearance of their habitats. She reuses the insects as often as possible. She does nothing to them except a re-hydration process. Some viewers think she paints them, but she doesn’t have to. Nature often produces more beauty than any human could re-create.
Museum director Kristen Shepherd became aware of Angus when her work was part of the lauded “Wonder” exhibition at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in 2015. Shepherd saw the artist’s work in person in 2018 at a Hudson River Museum exhibition. She then invited her to have a solo exhibition.
Angus planned “Grasshopper and the Ant” for a year. It is her largest installation to date with an estimated 5,000 insects, and it will never be displayed this way again. It was inspired by a painting in the museum’s permanent collection that depicted a story from Aesop’s Fables. In short, the ants build a home for the winter while the grasshopper plays music all summer. Come winter, the ants shut the grasshopper out because he didn’t “work.”
“I was actually enraged when I read this fable,” Angus said. “He has been working all summer. Do we value artists’ contributions?”
It’s an Alice in Wonderland experience coming through the Ant’s Pantry into the chartreuse Green Garden gallery. Insects in shapes you’ve never seen and colors only found in nature are arranged in circular, square and diamond patterns using the expanse of the wall, some high and others near the ground. They form a skull and the message “Thoughts and Prayers." In the space, beeswax-coated doll houses tower. A cuckoo clock clucks crazily.
Angus is an environmentalist, so the message is that thoughts and prayers aren’t enough for conserving the earth. Candles atop the doll houses reference global warming and rain forests burning. The cuckoo clock is a stand-in for doomsday. The dead insects are a result of ecosystems dying from deforestation.
But none of this information is posted around the gallery. It’s touched on in her artist statement at the end of the exhibit. And though Victorian calling cards in each gallery have passages from fables, there’s no overt environmental message.
If Angus wants her message to be heard, why not make it more clear?
“There was a study that people spend more time reading a label than looking at the artwork,” she said. “I didn’t want that interference. I recognize it might not be what I was thinking, but it’s more interesting and it creates a dialogue. I want people to use their imagination.”
No labels are needed for the Animal Dinner Party, a celebration of taxidermied Florida wildlife in a coral room surrounded by faux animal heads framed by insects and Victorian patterns. The critters appear to be in dialogue, especially the otter and the deer.
Her interest in the Victorian era fits with her medium of choice, as it was a time of collection and scientific study. It wasn’t unusual for people to have displays of bugs mounted, and it still isn’t. But Angus takes this practice to another level in the Cabinet of Curiosities gallery. Drawers are pulled out of two antique cabinets, inviting viewers to peer in on tiny universes starring insects, colorful papers, flowers, plant matter and objets d’art. In bell jars, insects pair with Victorian-era microscope slides. The insects are symbols of death in the big memento mori displays, which include cow skulls and conical hives called skeps. And they’re posed in scenes depicting the seven deadly sins in black cases around the gallery.
Angus imparts a version of herself in those drawer scenes. There is a hierarchy. She poses the cicada-beeswax hybrid female character reigning over a situation, often holding books. And she includes miniature burnt books, a reference to the denial of climate change.
It takes her a day to complete just three drawers.
“It always appears that the insects are on a journey,” she said. “That’s life for me. I want to be traveling and learning. I don’t want to be sitting around.”
IF YOU GO
On display through Jan. 5. $20, $15 seniors, students, military and Florida educators, $10 ages 7-17, free for 6 and younger and members; $10 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. The cafe is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-2667. mfastpete.org.
The Friends of Decorative Arts Lecture Series presents local artist Mark Noll on Insects as Adornment from 2-3 p.m. Nov. 12. BugsGiving: A Dining Experience With Chef Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs is from 6-9 p.m. Nov. 15. $50-$60. A lecture with artist Jennifer Angus is from 2-3:30 p.m. Nov. 16. Included with museum admission.