Lina Tharsing

The American Museum of Natural History proclaims, “The viewer of a habitat group diorama is able to travel not only across continents, but also, in some cases, through time.” We can view habitats that are thousands of miles away and environments that were destroyed long ago through complex constructions that employ false perspective and curved painted backdrops, tricking the viewer into believing he is looking through a window to the natural world. The original diorama paintings created by James Perry Wilson were a sort of virtual reality engineering. According to Steven Quinn, senior project manager of the most recent restoration of the museum’s diorama, “They were windows onto other worlds and landscapes, and the engineering that went into making them completely convincing is still astounding now,” Quinn said, adding that when the hall opened, in 1942, just after America’s entry into the Second World War, “the dioramas became a kind of patriotic pageant, a picture of our land and our values. They stood for America.”

For over seventy years these masterworks of American art and engineering have captured the imaginations of filmmakers, photographers, painters, and artists from all over the world, including Lina Tharsing in Lexington, Kentucky, who has worked with this material in a variety of ways over the past three years. Unlike the original museum installations, her paintings do not attempt to mimic a natural reality but serve as points of departure to explore the complexities of perception, blurring the boundaries between imagination and reality and speaking to the inherent tensions embodied by those environments.

Tharsing’s most recent works are painted from archival images taken at the American Museum of Natural History. Installed like a filmstrip, the paintings revisit the creation of the iconic dioramas using only two colors: ivory black and titanium white. The extremely limited palette mimics the coolness of black-and-white film and helps the viewer focus on the structure and geometry of the constructed environments. The panel’s sides are intentionally left unpainted, showing drip marks and raw wood in order to convey the process by which they were painted.

Lina Tharsing’s paintings seek a precise moment in both time and space when the lines of fiction and reality intersect. At that instant anything is possible. The traditional limits of belief and understanding are called into question and replaced with a deliberately composed tension of multiple truths. The viewer of these works is asked not to study the individual painted figures, animals, or props but to look through a window onto other worlds and landscapes, across place and time, and to find their own truths.

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