MSB brainstorming

04 January 2014

The Museum of Lost Wonder by Jeff Hoke

First published March 30, 2007

museum_wonder.jpg For those of you who either missed my Bad At Sports podcast contribution, or would rather actually read reviews than listen to them, here’s a post. I’m introducing a work of art in book form by former Chicago artist: The Museum of Lost Wonder by Jeff Hoke, now of California.

Jeff Hoke and I go back a long way. We studied art at the University of Illinois at Champaign together as undergraduates, we worked together at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, we even have done art collaboratively. At the Field Museum, or Dead Animal Zoo as it's employees fondly called it, we primarily created dioramas (such as the Eskimo sod and snow house), exhibitions (I did the Egypt Hall, Hoke much else). We worked with an exciting group of artists at that time including Raoul Deal, Michael Paha, Cameron Zebron, Bill Skodje and Jeff Wrona.

Hoke also created one of the best performance events I have ever seen: The Reluctant Tenants of Modernism; An Affectionate Look at Bourgeois Folk Art (A production in seven acts performed by their heirs). This evening-long piece, with exhibition as well, was presented in NAB Gallery circa 1983, and included marvelously entertaining and thought-provoking segments with a range of creators all planned by, directed by and created in collaboration with Hoke. It also included 3-D slides, a hilarious “travelogue” by now-actor John Judd, a smell performance and more.

Later Hoke and I, in addition to our own art careers where we often helped each other out, had a short-lived third career as a critical and humorous art pair called Staff 'n' Eddie. We stopped their activities when we felt they were becoming more popular as an artworld comedy team than a critical one. Or maybe because they were getting more famous than our "real" identities. If we indeed have real identities. Who knows. I went off to my life in Europe and elsewhere, Jeff became the senior exhibition designer at the Monterey Aquarium, which is more of a museum than a simple aquarium. We have stayed in touch, and Hoke visited me recently in Europe where he was assisting, in his free time, in the launch of a Museum of Alchemy in the Czech Republic, and was visiting various Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Curiosities, the origin of all museums.

Over the past 10 years and more, Hoke has been concentrating on the artwork I will discuss here, one merging myth, science and inspired speculation into a vast, yet imaginary personal museum, which is the title of his book, his website, his magnum opus: The Museum of Lost Wonder.

Yes, this is a book, but what a book, an artist's book, a wonder. This is an artwork of Hoke's that I wish I had collaborated on — but that would have been impossible, because this is all him. It has text, paintings, cartoons, diagrams, cut-and-paste models and more, all united into one mammoth gem, a banquet for the eye, mind, soul, and imagination — a strange amalgamation of science volume, esoteric textbook, graphic novel, painter's catalogue, psychological manual, do-it-yourself, think-for-yourself activity book and sprawling, gorgeous dream. Hoke's tome is encyclopedic, drawing on all the influences I have already mentioned, but also philosophy, astronomy, religion, biology, physics, psychology, quantum physics, and Tibetan Buddhism. That may sound scary or overwhelming — but the true strength of Hoke's book lies NOT only in its fascinating breadth, but in the clarity with which it all fits together — and the joy in discovery and wonder that arise in me every time I dip back into it.

The artist says that the curiosity cabinets of the 1600s inspired him, especially in their entertaining eclecticism. He wants to reinvigorate a thought process from before "science became a (dreary) belief system unto itself," when artist, alchemist, and scientist were one and the same, and the search for mystical experience included practical experiments.

The book is big, glossy and full color. Typical for Hoke, every single detail is immaculately well-thought out and executed — down to the trompe l'oeil illusions of scraps of paper appearing to float through the text , ones on which symbols of his own invention are drawn.

The book is structured around an imagined "accidental" tour through the museum, as experienced by a young boy who actually came into the edifice to use the toilet, but is drawn into the experience of his life. The tale is introduced in a wordless comic, then expands into a rich panorama of paintings and models and explanations as you turn each page, moving from one “exhibit hall” to another. This Gesamtkunstwerk of a book recreates the alchemical process of turning base metal into gold, and its actually spiritual goal, in the viewers' minds.

There are seven "exhibition halls," each its own chapter, in this museum accessible to everyone. Each is named for the stages of alchemical transformation from base matter to divinely-inspired knowledge. It begins with "Calcinatio" (Hall of Technology), continues with "Solutio" (Hall of Aquaria), "Coagulatio" (Zoological Garden),"Sublimatio" (The Observatory), "Mortificatio" (Mausoleum of History), "Separatio" (Science and Faith), and ending with "Conjunctio" (Gallery of the Arts). Each of these exhibit halls has its own Greek Muse presiding over it. Each Chapter-cum-Hall also ends with a removable, cut-and-paste paper model, such as a "Do-It-Yourself Model of the Universe" — each one an integral part of the work, but an artwork in and of itself as well.

The Museum of Lost Wonder has been called by one reviewer "an invitation into the imagination of a brilliant artist as well as a welcome back into your own imagination" and that it is. Moreover, it reminded me of the thrill --- the original sense of wonder —- I had in learning itself, and that this is based on asking exciting questions, even if, or perhaps even best if, you don't find one single answer.

I could go on and on, — in the book, uh — museum, you can meet Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, Abraham Maslow and Sir Isaac Newton, you can play the "Heroic Vacation Game," you can thrill to the full-color 3-D (with red-green glasses) insert painting of a skull (only available as an insert if you buy it from his website), or to the beautifully rendered watercolors of Gnomen, the guide person, with which the book closes — but it suffices to say that you should buy this book and thereby own the best museum ever.

If "brick-and-mortar" museums were anywhere near Hoke's vision, I'd gladly return to working in them, especially if I could do so with Hoke and Raoul Deal once again. And above all if Hoke's "Gnomon," a cartoonish stick-figure who serves as a guide and mute mentor were the director.

In conclusion, this is indeed the preeminent work of art ex-Chicagoan Hoke has created, a culmination of at least 20 years of work and research, as far as I can see. It is a dazzling pièce de résistance. And one of the best works of art in any field or genre to have come from a Chicagoan, hell, from an American. A celebration of Wonder Re-Found.

The book is available in hardcover 176pp, at stores $49.95
cheaper on-line at Amazon or at Barnes and Noble: $39.96
ISBN: 1578633648
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser

His web site is
Where there is an interactive tour of the museum. It's a freebie people can enjoy ---something fun without buying the book.

There is a fine interview with the artist at Written Voices by life enhancement expert Allan Hunkin here.

A video spot for the book is at youtube where Jeff tells me he doing his best James Burke impersonation.

Some links to people and places mentioned in this blog:

The Museum of Lost Wonder / Jeff Hoke
UIUC School of Art
Field Museum of Natural History
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Raoul Deal
Michael Paha
Cameron Zebrun
Jeff Wrona
Staff 'n' Eddie
Museum of Alchemy
René Descartes
Abraham Maslow
Sir Issac Newton
James Burke

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