Darwin’s Ghosts

Darwin’s Ghosts (older than dirt)
Dan Kennedy, 2008

Artist Dan Kennedy‘s new show, “Darwin’s Ghosts,” is opening next weekend at the Shooting Gallery Gallery Three in San Francisco. Kennedy’s work is like spun candy: colorful cartoon figures; Seuss-like, rainbow-tufted plants; floating phrases; ribbons and fireworks. A smattering of vintage fonts give the pieces the flavor of Americana. Phrases seem torn from circus posters, movie marquees, or old ads – strange company indeed for Darwin’s famous “from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful. . . ” quote.

Darwin, here represented by a pale figure who seems half Abe Lincoln, half Uncle Sam, looks like a lost librarian in a drug-addled technicolor jungle completely devoid of rationality, science, or organization (one of the pieces is titled Darwin Ascends Mt. Delerium). Darwin doesn’t look all that happy about it, does he?

Ghost Dust
Dan Kennedy, 2008

The real Darwin, of course, did find himself displaced – from Victorian London to a finch-filled jungle, where he had to build his own rational explanation for the diversity that confounded him (I think Kennedy could have done more with finches). The paintings capture both that sense of displacement, and the layers of additional confusion that encrusted Darwin’s theory as it became part of our culture. “The world will be destroyed in 1859,” reads Darwin’s Ghost (older than dirt), and in a way, it was: the static world of specific creation was displaced permanently by a paradigm of mutability. It made modern biology possible, but even more importantly, it changed the way we think about ourselves.

Changes in the Zoology
Dan Kennedy, 2008

Today, Darwin’s ghost is with us constantly: in the ongoing conflicts over evolution’s place in public schools, in the timely question of whether a creationist politician can promulgate constructive science policy, in the accelerating loss of species all around us – hardly noticeable as yet, but steadily unraveling a diversity which, appearances to the contrary, is not “endless.” The isolated words floating in Kennedy’s paintings drop hints of nascent religious and political conflict.

And some of the ghosts are uniquely Darwin’s: the Beagle’s Captain Fitzroy, who committed suicide a few years after publication of the Origin of Species, and who, like Darwin’s own wife Emma, was profoundly troubled by the religious implications of Darwin’s theory; Darwin’s daughter, who died as a child. Darwin, too, was troubled by his conclusions. And the feeling evoked by these paintings is less wonder than a sort of unsettled, ominous dread.

We all have ghosts; we all start and end as dust (elemental, if not divinely inspired); we all struggle to understand our place in the cosmos. Darwin did it better than most, perhaps – but as a culture, we still haven’t come to terms with his legacy.

“Darwin’s Ghost” opens with a reception October 3 and runs through November 8. Kennedy has been represented by the Jonathan Levine Gallery and


  1. #1 John O
    September 26, 2008

    Half Uncle Sam + half Abe Lincoln + half bellhop = 150% All American.

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