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Joy on the Grand Scale: Jonathan Singer at the New Jersey State Museum

When a fellow scholar interested in botanical illustration pointed Dr. Karen Reeds to a Smithsonian.com article on Jonathan Singer, she was struck right away by what she saw. “Within five minutes,” she recalls, “I thought: this is something that would make a good exhibition.”

Actually bringing Singer’s photography to the New Jersey State Museum, where Dr. Reeds is a freelance curator, took some time and negotiation. For one thing, the project would be an ambitious one for the museum, which “didn’t have any frames large enough on hand” for Singer’s giant-sized photographs. Still, says Dr. Reeds, the publication of Singer’s Botanica Magnifica, with its gorgeous full-color images of rare and exotic plants, was a “tremendous advertisement” that wowed her fellow curators.

Asked why the images appealed so much to her own eye, Reeds praised “the contrast of the absolutely luminous color against the black background…that makes them all the more vivid.” She noted the influence on Singer of still life paintings by Dutch Old Masters, which, she said, were “ingrained in me from a very early age as a beautiful thing to see” (a reproduction of one of them hung in her grandmother’s house as a child). She pointed, too, to the way their size works in the photographs’ favor; they’re “so large that you see things that you could not actually see on the living plant”–or under a microscope, which doesn’t permit a view of the entire specimen. Finally, she said, there is the artist’s personal imprint, independent of technical considerations: his “sheer joy in the forms and colors of the plant.”

Once the exhibition was set to go forward, Reeds worked with Singer and her fellow curators to, as she puts it, “create a story.” Their choice of materials dictated by what was already framed, they grouped images to create a logical flow for each section of exhibition, juxtaposing them with the museum’s John James Audubon prints to emphasize their continuity with the “historical tradition of natural history illustration on the grand scale.”

How was the show received? “Very well,” says Reeds: it attracted praise from ARTNews, ART TIMES, and Princeton Magazine, among other outlets, as well as considerable community interest in Trenton and beyond. It satisfied the most demanding critics, too: Reeds noticed that children were quite fond of the work, responding in particular to “Jonathan’s more abstract images”–those that “hom[ed] in on an abstract piece of color and form.” From little kids to the Smithsonian, from Botanica Magnifica to Fine Bonsai, it seems that the wow factor in Singer’s work remains a constant.