Remains of the Day

Kate Breakey finds monumental beauty in 'Small Deaths.'

On Sunday morning, Kate Breakey had a run-in with a rattler. As an Australian who grew up in the countryside, Breakey's accustomed to wild creatures. And here in Tucson she often rides her horse out into Saguaro National Park, in search of the tiny dead animals that have helped make her name as a photographer-who-paints.

But this critter was most definitely alive, and angry. Breakey was out in her back yard when she heard a "rattling, hissing sound. I leant into the shrubbery--and it was a rattlesnake!"

The artist quickly recoiled, and summoned a neighbor who's an expert in rattler removal. The close encounter may have yielded no art but it nevertheless had a happy ending: Breakey was unharmed and the snake was alive.

That makes the snake lucky in nature's larger scheme.

"Nature massacres things in large numbers and just carries on," Breakey says. "It's kinda sad, all those little things that die. Here, whenever there's a rattlesnake on the road, I try to usher it off."

Breakey says that even as a small child on the family farm near Adelaide she couldn't bear the deaths of fledgling birds who'd tumbled from the nest or of ducklings too weak to live. Nowadays, many of the dying critters not fortunate enough to be saved by Breakey's ministrations ("I'm a great resurrecter but it's often a lost cause") end up memorialized in her Small Deaths pictures. Now on view as part of a striking four-person show at Etherton Gallery, her series consists of larger-than-life photographic close-ups of dead animals and flowers, hand-painted in luminous colors. The series has about 150 images, but the dozen selected for the Etherton exhibition all depict creatures and plants late of the Sonoran Desert: a pair of Gambel's quails, male and female, a ruby-throated hummingbird, a Mexican evening primrose.

The artist begins by collecting corpses. The desert yields up many, while others come as gifts from friends who know her predilections. The Gambel's quails, for instance, died after a crash into a plate-glass window belonging to a colleague of her husband's, a fellow Australian who is a molecular biologist at University Medical Center.

In an earlier series, Remains, Breakey photographed the animal's entire body; now she makes gigantic photographic portraits of just the head and torso. Blown up to 32 by 32 inches, the creatures become roughly human-sized. She paints the gelatin silver prints with transparent oils, and finishes them off with Prismacolor pencil, making delicate strokes for feathers and scales and eyelids.

"Auriparus flaviceps, Verdin," one of the dead birds in the show, is a somber affair. Painted in muted earth tones and set against a gray-brown background, the creature has dropped its beak onto its chest. A pale lavender glows with an unearthly light around the body. Breakey says these pictures are "still-lifey" but the French term, nature morte, is even more apt here. It means "dead nature."

But the majority of the new images at Etherton are sweeter than the poor Verdin, and more brilliantly colored. In fact, most of them don't seem quite as morte as the Small Deaths Breakey has shown at the gallery in previous years, when the colors were darker, the dead eyes bulged more dramatically, and a flimsy fledgling, its feathers still wet, curled in a death throe. More typical of this edition is a Mexican goldpoppy brilliant in bright yellow, set against gleaming royal blue, and the stately Gambel's quails, posed to face each other, coupled for eternity.

Breakey covers a lot of art historical ground in Small Deaths. Contemporary as they are, with their mixing of media and their stark figures floating on abstracted space, the pictures nevertheless have a 19th-century air. Like Breakey, early photographers would create mementos mori, memories of the dead, but instead of animals they immortalized dead children, producing photographs of grieving parents holding the corpse of a dead child. And there's something of the old-time botanist and biologist at work in these pictures as well. Like a scientist Breakey faithfully records every feather and hue of a specimen, and she even labels the images with their taxonomy names in Latin, tracing the elaborate titles in delicate cursive writing at the bottom of each picture.

Yet, as an artist, she forces us to confront each creature as an individual, "each with a unique life story, a different tragic death."

The monumental size, too, sets these works firmly in our own time. Gone are the old 19th-century hierarchies that posited man at the pinnacle of creation. These dignified human-size animals and plants assert themselves as our equals, equally a part of the cycle of life. And the delicious texture of the transparent oils over the slick photographic paper is a modern innovation. Breakey's work has enjoyed wide acclaim--she's exhibited in more than 60 shows, and her work is held in numerous collections, including the Center for Creative Photography--but she runs into criticism for her mixing of media.

"I've had a couple of reviews that said what I did to the photograph is absolutely sinful," Breakey says. "The purists don't like it. To them, the print is a sacred thing, not to be bent, or colored.

She sees it differently. As an undergrad at the South Australian School of Art, Breakey studied both painting and printmaking before switching to photography. At the University of Texas, Austin, she got her master's in photography.

"I love photography but I couldn't give up using paint and inks," she says. "I love the smell of it. I love everything about it. My work now is a way of marrying the two.

Breakey says the Small Deaths series may be coming to its own end. Last fall the University of Texas Press published the series in a full-color volume called Small Deaths, and she thinks of the book as a "nice accomplishment" that may well allow her to go on to new things. She's done large-scale landscape in the past, and she'd like to get to work on Arizona's land.

A second Breakey show opening this Saturday in Scottsdale offers hints of possible future directions--and a willingness to explore photography's next frontier. These works are even larger, 72 inches high, on canvas. They've been digitally printed, a first for the artist, and they feature life-size horses that, like the fortunate snake in her yard, are very much alive.

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