Richard Harris has a passion for art about death—and the freedom to assemble a collection you’re unlikely to see in a museum. The retired suburban Riverwoods art dealer has acquired more than 1,500 objects relating to mortality, bridging centuries, cultures and the divide between fine art and popular culture.
The diversity and scale of “Morbid Curiosity”—which is drawn from Harris’s collection—drive home the universality of death as a subject in art. One gallery, the so-called Kunstkammer of Death, is filled with vitrines as well as works stacked high on the walls. Colorful artifacts from Mexico’s Day of the Dead buoy visitors’ spirits, but they occupy the same room as June Leaf’s skeleton sculpture Gentleman on Green Table, which associates death with isolation and neglect.
Both beautiful and perverse, the Kunstkammer’s centerpiece is Jodie Carey’s In the Eyes of Others (pictured, 2009), which is composed of 3,000 cast-plaster bones. The style of this magnificent ballroom chandelier is as extinct as the bodies from which the English artist fashioned it.
A second gallery is devoted to war: death’s cousin. Five staggering series of prints by Jacques Callot, Otto Dix, Francisco Goya, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Sandow Birk decry war’s horrors. Birk’s woodcuts showing the human costs of the Iraq War build on Callot’s etchings of the Thirty Years’ War. By presenting the torture at Abu Ghraib and other recent horrors in a 17th-century manner, Birk reminds us how little war—and death—have changed.