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Grand Stairway with Four Skeletons

by Amy Namowitz Worthen

Published onSep 21, 2020
Grand Stairway with Four Skeletons

Grand Stairway with Four Skeletons, 1977 - 1978
Amy Namowtiz Worthen (American, b. 1946)
Etching, engraving and drypoint on paper
A gift from Iowa State University class of 1967. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM82.240

Drawn from her series “Real and Imagined Aspects of the State Capitol,” this print by Amy Worthen depicts a real view of the interior of the Iowa State Capitol, but populates it with figures drawn wholly from her imagination, a line of bovine skeletons that ascend the nineteenth-century staircase in single file.  With their horns and elongated vertebrae they appear to be not cattle but bison, the ancient creatures of the American prairies: once so plentiful their herds numbered in the millions, now nearly extinct.  The scene is fanciful and lighthearted, but disturbing at the same time: what are these creatures doing?  Where are they headed, going up these stairs?  They do not stampede but process with dignified grandeur, behaving—in their creaturely way—appropriately for the setting.  Have they come to exact revenge?  Or simply to stand as silent, powerful reminders of what was sacrificed in the pursuit of western settlement, in the building of the capitol and of the state that it represents?

Worthen’s print partakes of and participates in a tradition of architectural fantasy in printmaking, practiced most famously by the eighteenth-century Italian printmaker and antiquarian Giovanni Battista Piranesi.  Known for his views of Roman ruins, Piranesi also produced a series of “Imaginary Prisons,” pictures in which he depicted imagined spaces, experimenting with various ways of representing three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.  The resulting images are wildly inventive and dazzling in their depiction of complex interior spaces, but also deeply unsettling: claustrophobic renderings of incomprehensible buildings-within-buildings, of spaces crisscrossed with staircases and catwalks and hung with ominous ropes and chains to no clear purpose.  Following Piranesi’s example, Worthen, too, produces imagined scenes of complex architectural spaces shown from unusual vantage points, skillfully rendering in two dimensions the feeling of occupying space in the third.  The addition of the skeletal bison, making their way up the steps, only compounds the feeling of alienation.  Worthen skillfully places us in a space we seem to recognize, yet cannot really comprehend.

-Dr. Emily Morgan


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