Would you like an octopus on your beetle?

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scarobeus cornepleura
Mauricio Ortiz

The technically gifted Mauricio Ortiz is originally from Costa Rica, but now lives in London, where his artistic star is on the rise. His octo-beetle, above, was recently selected to appear in a deck of playing cards as part of a high-profile British charity fundraiser, alongside a card by British bad boy Damien Hirst.

The octo-beetle is one of a number of painstaking drawings in the style of scientific illustrations, and inspired by Wunderkammern, the "wonder cabinets" of the Renaissance. Rather than starting with completely unfamiliar wonders, though, Ortiz remixes familiar animals into chimeras, making them new again.

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phytodraconis spectralis
Mauricio Ortiz

Ortiz wants his unexpected wonders to serve a silo-breaking function in an ordered, modern world:

As scientific discoveries. . . became better known, many wonders were explained away and once familiarized lost their charm. Wonders that demonstrated aberrant nature gave way to more regular specimens illustrating natures' uniform laws. One of the authors of the great 18th century Encyclopedie even sniffed, 'the marvelous is not for us'.

To be a member of the modern elite is to regard wonder with studied indifference. Yet wonders still persist, stubbornly, on the margins of our modern age. A wonder is something that so forcibly grabs your attention you are incapable of ignoring it. And because they don't fit into existing categories, wonders are perfect objects for making you rethink the world. (source)

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Sea Cockerel
Mauricio Ortiz

Ortiz also likes to play with similarities between disparate objects, like his "spheres" series, which juxtaposes Jupiter and the Moon with pearls, a coral bead, and an Ernst Haeckel-style structure which might be a radiolarian, titled "Fossilized Explosion."

Ortiz' lustrous, vibrant oil paintings are reminiscent of still-life masterworks, but also of the brightly colored science toys and illustrations of the 1960s - with a little dash of velvet Elvis thrown in. It's a style that's classic and pop culture, perfect for the lowbrow art scene. Here's hoping Ortiz's work appears at a gallery in the US soon!

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This kind of "science is inherently boring, ignorance is interesting" attitude always pisses me off, and I'm surprised you're so supportive of it. He has absolutely no idea what real scientists do, and apparently assumes they sit around in dark offices fighting to destroy any wonder in the world. I'll leave you with Richard Feynman's view, which illustrates the point quite nicely:

âI have a friend whoâs an artist and heâs sometimes taken a view which I donât agree with very well. Heâll hold up a flower and say, âLook how beautiful it is,â and Iâll agree, I think. And he says, âYou see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, you take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.

And I think that heâs kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower that he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty.

Also, the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting - it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which shows that a scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I donât understand how it can subtract.â

By Chris Evo (not verified) on 28 Dec 2009 #permalink

Chris, that's not what the artist said. It's not what I said. You're obviously reading some of your own personal baggage into it.

Let me assure you that the historical shift Ortiz describes, from portraying unusual, "wondrous" specimens to portraying idealized specimen "types" that represent the "perfect" example of a species - was quite real. The change went right along with a shift in science toward more quantitative, well-defined and categorical methodologies; "wonder cabinets" gave way to ordered racks of "types" representing meticulous phylogenies.

A great deal of scholarly research has described the history of Wunderkammern, so I'm not going to get into it here, but I recommend you read something about Wunderkammern before you start misrepresenting Ortiz' discussion of them as some kind of attack on modern science. Your condescending comment is so very typical of why many non-scientists find science forbidding and scary - because any attempt to play with the idea of science, or be creative with its symbols and history, is shot down by judgmental know-it-alls who say "that's not what a REAL scientist would do." Whatever.

I was about to roll my eyes (yet another artist tapping into pre-Enlightenment taxonomies and collections), but these drawings are stunning. And we DO need a constant rethinking of categories really badly anyway.