Dena Kahan’s painting practice aims to subvert our natural inclination for order and perfection.
Using museum collections as subject matter for still life painting, such as the famous collection of glass botanical specimens in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Kahan introduces ambiguities of scale, space and reflection to undermine the clear containment of the museum case. In doing so, she transforms museum objects into a kind of substitute romantic landscape, hinting at the awe of the natural world. In these works, thin layers of oil on linen result in delicate and translucent surfaces. Kahan’s gossamer-like application of paint keeps the focus upon the materiality, reflecting the delicate nature of her subject matter. Her paintings segue neatly into the art museum environment, evidenced by the small survey exhibition of her work curated and hosted by Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in 2014.
Kahan’s recent work extends her exploration of the natural history museum, taking as her subject the collection of antique botanical models at the University of Melbourne Herbarium and the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney. Tightly arranged within narrow spaces like personages in a strange drama, these objects convey a theatricality and surreal beauty, which overwhelms and subverts their role as objects of scientific certainty.
In her current work, insects infiltrate the sterile environment of the museum store or display case, drawn to these artificial replicas of the plant world. This imagery references the tradition of 17th century Dutch still life, in which plants and insects take on symbolic meanings and flowers of different seasons bloom together. It also alludes to our often-negative intervention in the natural world, as well as to the ability of nature to evade our control.