Joseph Rossano: vanity

march 4 - august 30, 2015


exhibition overview

In 2013, numerous animal species were declared extinct. Man’s destruction of these species’ natural habitat, his introduction of invasive species, and over harvest pushed them into memory. Vanity is both an installation and an expandable exhibition created by Joseph Gregory Rossano.

These brethren of ours, whose clans have so bravely conquered the dangers of millions of years, and at last have gained a foremost rank in the scale of living creatures, now find themselves face to face with the culminating effort of Nature—Mankind. They cannot escape from us...

Let us beware of needlessly destroying even one of the lives—so sublimely crowning the ages upon ages of evolving; and let us put forth all our efforts to save a threatened species from extinction; to give hearty aid to the last few individuals pitifully struggling to avoid absolute annihilation.

The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

– C. William Beebe, 1906


Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. – Eccl. 1:2; 12:8

Epargyreus zestos oberon ... Neofelis nebulosa ... Noturus trautmani. Give breath to those words and you will discover the makings of great poetry apropos of the seemingly fantastical fauna ever to fly, walk, or swim on Earth. But these species, precisely described by these Latin names, breathe no more. They are extinct—the flame of life that animated their bodies has been extinguished forever, and the Earth—as a body itself—is flickering and smoldering to a similar fate.

In the arts, vanitas is a special designation given to works that symbolically remind us of the fragility and evanescence of life. Life exists in ictu oculi—in the blink of an eye—and these types of works make visible the fear that we are not exceptional in this regard, simply the current, breathing survivors of an ongoing catastrophe.

Vanity by Pacific Northwest artist Joseph Rossano is an installation that passionately addresses these issues head-on in the great art historical tradition of vanitas, but with a decidedly 21st-century version of ut translatio natura—nature as metaphor.

Eleven extinct species are represented here in various ways: sculpturally in specimen jars; as drawings in the Naturalist’s tradition; historically in scientific descriptions linked through QR codes; and obscured by man’s DNA sequences. It is as though we could reconstruct each species with all the information provided, but Rossano complicates this act of mental remediation—his clear glass sculptures submerged in oil are almost imperceptible, and we are only given a clouded glimpse of the portraits of these species. What we can best see is ourselves reflected in the mirrored glass sculpture below the cabinets reminding us that this is our vanity, literally and figuratively.

Rossano and Museum of Glass Hot Shop Team have become implicit in Vanity’s telling. One of the most wondrous aspects of glass-making is that the resulting forms can be considered the artist’s breath embodied—as if all the artist is, knows, and cares about emanates from their very being and is made solid. Rossano includes glass as a medium because, “like our environment, glass is transparent, fragile and reflective—transparent in that it hides nothing, fragile in that once damaged it may never be repaired, and reflective of how we have impacted it.” Rossano’s work is both an opportunity for contemplation and a call to action.

As you interact with Vanity, reflect on these eleven species lost forever and your own relationship with the environment; give breath to their specific stories, share your experiences with others; and begin to make transparent ways we all can become better stewards of our fragile planet.

By Scott Lawrimore

featured images


Exhibition credit

Organized by Joseph Gregory Rossano and Museum of Glass.