Mortal Beauty

Artist Kate Breakey loves beautiful things: an indigo bunting radiating an unearthly blue, its head tucked to its chest; a frog lying serenely on its back, its front feet clasped across its torso; a single calla lily twisting elegantly outward.

They’re all gorgeous, and they’re all dead.

Breakey’s ‘Small Deaths’ series focuses on the corpses of what might in another age have been called lesser creatures–birds, rodents, lizards–and on wilting blooms unmoored from their roots. They’re the kind of remains that all but the most asphalt-confined city dwellers run across and usually dismiss or dispose of quickly. Breakey, by contrast, spends hours in the studio with them, lighting and photographing them, then layering the larger-than-life prints with veils of translucent paints and colored pencils. The result is lushly beautiful; even the rotting corpses are seductive.

Her work in this series, some 200 pieces over the past 10 years, is rife with influences. It’s a wild-kingdom version of memento mori, the ancient art tradition that reminds us our days on earth are numbered. Also present are the glowing surfaces of Dutch still lifes, the formality of court paintings, and a palpable tenderness that almost, but not quite, spills into Victorian sentimentality.

Breakey says that as a child she regularly rescued wounded birds she found near her home in southern Australia. Now living in the high desert of Tucson, Arizona, where she finds many of her subjects, she still revels in the wildlife that is drawn to her land, where she sees ‘the whole food chain in action.’

She came to photograph ‘small dead things,’ as she calls them, for practical reasons, and she brings to the work the matter-of-fact nature of a meticulous observer, albeit one with an abiding sense of wonder. ‘The only way to get to see these things is when they’re dead,’ she says, ‘when you’re holding them in your hands and saying, ‘Wow, look at the detail.’ ‘ Similarly, her work evinces reverence for the intrinsic mystery of existence alongside an unswerving scrutiny of the often stark natural order of things. It isn’t always obvious that Breakey’s subjects are dead. But the apparent postures of repose are the result of broken necks or of bodies frozen in rigor mortis, and whatever anthropomorphizing may take place is strictly the viewer’s own.

Many subjects arrive mummified from the desert heat or in some phase of decomposition. ‘I’m interested in the way they look in all those states,’ she says. ‘I find the skeletal things beautiful. I find the bones, the shape of the eye socket visually beautiful and wonderful.’

The images inevitably trail existential questions in their wake. The answers are, again, up to viewers’ interpretations, Breakey says, but her work has brought her a measure of clear-eyed comfort that derives not from some theological construct, but from the inexorable processes of the natural world: ‘I’m quite happy to think that when I die I’ll simply rot in the ground. And when I say rot in the ground, I know exactly what that is.’

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