Exquisite Creatures, Crystal Bridges

Exquisite Creatures, Crystal Bridges


(FULL GALLERY AT BOTTOM) I got to visit the Exquisite Creatures exhibit by Christopher Marley at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It was easily one of the most impressive and extensive exhibits I have ever seen. Completely unique to itself, Exquisite Creatures is a masterful intersection of scientific nature and art.


Marley uses ‘reclaimed vertebrae’ that are ‘sustainably sourced’ after passing from natural causes most commonly during captivity- whether that be zoo’s, private collectors, etc. The artist statement declares, “In my mind, there is little separating art and life sciences. It is like trying to separate dance from music. Art's purpose is to heighten our aesthetic sensibilities and our ability to empathize with the life systems we encounter. How does nature differ? We dance with it and within it. The aesthetics of nature are the rhythm we move to.” 

The first room is a kaleidoscopic dance of wings and color. Front and center stands a human high tall butterfly case- a subtle gradient of blues, glimmering under the light like the surface of water. It took my breath away.



Somehow- every piece was more impressive. My jaw basically stayed dropped. There were several mindblowing insect mandalas. At first glance, they are beautiful kaleidoscopes of color and pattern, but upon closer examination, you find they are dozens of holographic beetles and butterflies. 


At the back of the front room is the first introduction to birds and jewels. The artist questions our human ideas of rarity and value through the display of dynamic diamonds and jewels.

I was moved to tears by the first bird case- a colorful grid of finches. They looked so peaceful and their beauty will be forever appreciated in their final resting place. It felt deeply empathetic and honorable. 

The next room counteracted the bright white walls of the first room with a dark interior and a circular, nearly ceiling height, case of crystals and jewels- well lit for extra shimmer and shine. This was a smaller transition room into the next large one.

‘Critical Color’ was the theme of the larger space. The artist statement asking, “What would our life be like without colors?” The pieces in this room stood out for their unique display of colors- or lack there of. The first few cases were light boxes that put the vibrant prismatic details of beetle and butterfly wings on full display. If you didn’t know these were insects, you would think they were jewels. Each insect was a work of art on its own- then put dozens of them together and it’s a masterpiece of incredible detail.




The next few walls had me feeling like a kid in a candy store, in awe at every turn. This room was a collage of incredible specimens- introducing snakes, fish, other reptiles, seashells, and more to this mix. This room displayed the artistry of preservation. The specimens boasted radiant, natural colors and looked as if they could blink any moment. Although every case in the room was noteworthy in their own way, one of the few that stood out the most for me was the light blue Boa (?) snake. It looks otherworldly.



Then came one of my favorite sections of the whole show. At the end of the Critcal Color room, was the blackout corner. The dark walls highlighted that all the specimens here were black or white- or both. The juxtaposition created such a dynamic contrast. The star piece here was the massive glass case full of freshwater rays. They were black with a white cheetah-esque pattern on their backs. So captivating.

This section also displayed the first skeleton of the show- a fish- who I heard someone say looks like it’s about to drop the next best rock album.

But all jokes aside- the white fish skeleton against the dark background really put the delicacy of the details front stage. The seashell skeletons in this section were compelling as well. One of my favorite diptych pieces (two pieces coming together to form one) of the show was the black and albino snake side by side with opposite matting in this section.

The next room’s theme was Organization. Bugs, beetles, plants, and snakes were organized categorically. There was a single white Cockatoo. It had spread wings and was headless. It genuinely looked like a framed angel. 

The snake display in this room hosted several impressively striped and colored species. The most unique to my eyes was the snake in the center- red and black with a single light blue stripe down the middle.

I was also mesmerized by the pattern on the red snake bottom row- its skin looked like it was straight off the runway.

The prompt on the wall encouraged viewers to guess which was the single venomous snake. Can you pick out which one?



The right answer was the coral snake in the top left corner! The next couple walls put plants and underwater life on display. There was a Leafy Seadragon that was impressively camouflaged like seaweed.

A Peeble Crab was displayed close by. It caught my eye because of its comically long arms. Coincidentally, in the artist statement Marley is saying they’re often inspired and infatuated by specimens with exaggerated features such as cartoonishly long arms and legs. 

The next room… was the snake room. Each snake was so individually unique. And them being behind glass hopefully helped people get close to look at details. Some had horns and eyelashes or were wide and flat versus their usually cylindrical bodies. One of the most impressive of this section was the massive black King Cobra. And a King it was- this snake was huge. This was the only animal I noticed that the artist states he manipulated the color after it’s passing. It created such drama through size and color. 

The end of the exhibit takes us under the sea. This room had fish, crabs, sharks, eels, shells, lizards, and plants. I was mesmerized in every room, but fish never cease to amaze me with their color and patterns.

There was a MASSIVE Ornate Spiny Lobster, it had to be 3 to 4 feet tall with its antenna. Between the deep purple and cream patterned legs and the purple to turquoise to yellow gradient speckled body, this lobster was a true masterpiece of the sea. 

Marley’s arrangements of group pieces are always playful and full of movement. The fish and shark collages looked as if they were naturally swimming through space in a fluidly geometric way. 

The Orchid case at the very end was the cherry on top. Another dark matte glass case full of uniquely ornate orchids with lively shapes and colors. 

‘Exquisite Creatures’ is a celebration of nature, death, reclamation, and the beauty of detail. There were insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, plants, and jewels. There could not have been a more beautiful way to honor the bodies of these beings after their death. It’s as if they were given new life. Marley’s work is honorably empathetic and incredibly ‘exquisite’. 

I think I was so touched by this exhibit because nature was the first place I was genuinely awestruck by beauty. I have always been infatuated with the wonders of nature’s details and it’s beauty at all scales. ‘Exquisite Creatures’ not only puts these details front and center, but does it in a way that is so artistically captivating. I was blown away by the size of this exhibit. You could spend hours in there and probably still not see every single detail. A museum worker told me the artist said he had another gallery sized collection of just birds. I can only imagine the extensive collection and endless hours of careful consideration to detail this all took. That is respectful dedication. 

To me, this exhibit is a reminder that nature’s beauty was Earth’s first masterpiece- and everything is art if you pay attention.

This exhibit is open March 19 through July 29, 2024 and is $12 admission (for this exhibit only, rest of museum is free), or free with membership. 


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