Nov. 10 2010 12:00 AM

Artist builds virtual gallery out of life and death

If you like lots of tomato, garlic and onion in your art, Kim Kauffman’s “Investigations” series, now on view at Mackerel Sky in East Lansing, might be just the spread for you. However, be warned — you must also open yourself to acquired tastes like cracked turtle shell, dead finch and beaver skull.

Kauffman scavenges natural objects, many from the garden engulfing her west Lansing home, in states ranging from juicy life to dry decay. She scans them at high resolution, capturing every petal, crack and fold. Finally, she fashions the scans into composite images that blend stark laboratory realism with the dark grandeur of an 18th-century oil painting. No cameras are involved in the process.

A fig is cut open and magnified to overwhelming size, wet seeds writhing in crimson flesh. The battered stomach shell of a turtle is enshrined, like the shield of Achilles, on a dark heraldic field. The high-resolution detail is arresting, but the tension comes from Kauffman’s sly juxtaposition of subjects and manipulation of scale.

An unearthly blossom is locked in an odd but gorgeous clinch with an earthy onion. Since when does a night blooming Cereus (a cactus flower) grow out of an onion?

“Only in my world,” Kauffman said.

In the show’s most arresting image, a dead bird is nestled in a blanket-like bier of foliage. The mix of road-kill realism and soft-focus sentimentality led several viewers to tell Kauffman that “Investigation: Goldfinch” goes too far.

“I’ve been told some people don’t like it,” she said. “It crashed on my window, and I just thought it should be remembered.”

All 15 images in the show have titles that begin with “Investigation,” making them sound like obscure cop-show spinoffs, but there’s a reason for that. After a long series of abstract and realistic exhibits at Mackerel Sky (“Investigations” is her 11th), Kauffman’s latest work has a richness and breadth that speaks for itself. She decided that fancy poetic titles would only detract from the images.

In “Investigation: Garlic,” a head of garlic is magnified to the size of the viewer’s head and paired with a delicate bindweed blossom.

The image is rich as an oil painting, but no still life artist could do that in oils, if only because the flower is much smaller than the garlic.

“Part of the collage process, apart from the scanner capture, is the ability to create my still life, not in reality, but to put it all together in the computer and be able to adjust scale,” Kauffman said.

The closer Kauffman looks at everything she scans, the more patterns she finds.

The central drama in “Garlic” is the affinity between the stripes, or striations, in the paper-like peel of the garlic and the petals of the bindweed. That’s what made them the “co-stars” (in Kauffman’s words) of the image.

Such patterns and contrasts fill every image, down to a humble seed pod that plays a supporting role in “Garlic.”

“What I see is, across nature, this radiating pattern on these seeds is everywhere,” she said. “It fascinates me that it’s played out in so many different ways.”

“So it’s not really about the garlic,” Kauffman explained. “It’s about everything.”

William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the fathers of photography, made “photogenic drawings” in the 1830s by placing fern fronds, fennel and other botanical forms directly on photosensitive paper and exposing the image to sunlight.

At about the same time, marine biologist Anna Atkins pressed algae and seaweed onto “blueprint” paper to make a delicate image.

Such early camera-less images were limited to two-dimensional tracings of complex botanical forms — intricate shadows of life, but still only shadows.

Kauffman’s scans add hyper-rich color and detail to the process.

However, Kauffman never loses sight of the lines and forms that fascinated Talbot and Atkins. The subject of “Investigation: Umbel” is a generous spray of Queen Anne’s lace, the familiar roadside weed with tinkertoy stems that branch from a central point (umbels). The subject would have fascinated Talbot or Atkins, but Kauffman’s spray has a dazzling richness of detail and depth.

Far from exhausting the medium, Kauffman feels that her latest show has only begun her investigations. She has a library of thousands of scans to sift through, and her friends comb gardens and beaches for interesting things to send her.

After exposure to Kauffman’s work, people often take to bending over to examine a crushed blossom in the garden or a discarded pod on the sidewalk, marveling at the textures and forms of life and death.

“If that’s true, that is wonderful,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The natural world of flowers, fruit, seeds and dead animals (found, not sought after) is only a temporary limit for Kauffman. Most people don’t spot it right away, but “Investigation: Kale” in the Mackerel Sky show contains a half-hidden gardener’s glove that may point to the next phase in her art.

“In all of this, it’s the only thing that refers to anything human,” she said. “But there’s no reason humans should be excluded.”

The glove quietly cracks open the door to the close study of a vast class of objects, from buttons and lace to rusty nails and barbed wire.

But a genuine investigator waits until she is in the field. Kauffman isn’t in the mood to speculate on her next show.

“That’s all I got right now,” she said with a shrug.