Mark Fairnington by Coline Milliard for The Bull Market exhibition at Bury St Edmunds Gallery, 2010

Mark Fairnington

The first ever dinosaur park opened in the mid-1850s in Crystal Palace. Fifteen prehistoric reptile figures were installed on three artificial islands, each of which represented a new phase in the creatures' development. The idea of evolution was very much in the air - Darwin was to publish his The Origin of Species a few years later - and natural history was becoming a scientific project rather than a pastime for enlightened hobbyists. Executed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in collaboration with the palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs summed up everything that was known at the time about the instinct species. Yet as early as 1859 they would turn out to be inaccurate, less the giants who trampled the earth a few millennia previously than fantastical, fairy tale beasts.

Mark Fairnington's paintings exist at this precise junction between science and fantasy. His drawing Crystal Palace (2009) demonstrates a deep affection for the absurd monsters still reigning over the South London park. Outdated and stagy, they embody a very 19th-century type of enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world, past and present. Back then, filling the gaps of knowledge with what was tantamount to storytelling was common practice; what was not found had to be invented. So Fairnington's dinosaur island is placed in an invented background, relocated to a world of fancy where the reptiles' imprecision is to be cherished rather than laughed at. As in most of his works, the artist reaffirms in this drawing the place of the marvellous within the controlled processes of scientific investigation.

Again and again Fairnington uses the language of natural history to frame his pictorial fictions. A first collaboration with an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History at Oxford University in 1998 led to numerous paintings of specimens, stuffed birds and pined insects represented in the square space of their display boxes. Anatomically accurate, Fairnington's specimens nonetheless escape their primary purposes of research or display. Idolomantis diabolica (2004) has the threatening air of Shelob, the monstrous spider of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (1954). 'One of the simple things I did', says the artist, 'was to turn the insects around'. When viewed from the front, what had been a lifeless shell becomes an avenging soldier, legs raised, ready to fight. 'They are kind of resurrected and become these half-dead, half-live beings. The anthropomorphic associations that people have with things like that are unleashed more powerfully.

Specimen 12 (Fall) and Specimen 13 (Fall) (both works 2010), shown at Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery, take the opposite course to this aggressive display. 'They are very poignant and tragic kind of images', says Fairnington of the two small oil paintings. 'They almost look like humans.' The two insects evoke emaciated figures, wrapped up in oversized green coats. They look endangered and fragile, almost asking for care and protection. The painter isn't afraid of engaging natural history images on an emotional level, one that's often obliterated in academic discourse but very much part of the way scientists engage with their discipline. Fairnington remembers for example how the curator of the taxidermy outstorage depot at London's National History Museum told him fondly about his collection's latest addition: Guy the Gorilla, a notoriously grumpy ex-star of London's Zoo, in life severely handicapped by arthritis and teeth abscesses. For the scientist, specimens are not only samples of the natural world to be scrutinised behind a glass panel or under a microscope, they are also individuals, characters from his daily life.

The Congregation (2008) depicts a cross between a taxidermy storage depot and a Victorian freak show. The animals are stuck on individual stages, hampered by the planks and cloths used to keep the crumbling specimens together. Like crutches and bandages, these implements highlight a sense of pathos: the boar and the bear look trapped and wounded in their wooden frames, the giraffe and the donkey are ridiculed by oversized gowns. The fragmented, surreal space enhances the fictional aspect of one of the most overtly stagey pieces in Fairnington's production; The Congregation blurs the limits between science and spectacle. 'In the 19th Century', explains Fairnington, 'the natural history world and the travelling show world collided. The Elephant Man is a good example of that: he started off in a human freak show and then he got picked up by a scientist who used him in another way.'

Fairnington's latest series of paintings is a major departure from his concern with the cultural history of scientific display. Unlike the insects, the bulls they picture are very much alive; they are selected breeds - Turbo Tommy, Wroxall Tracer - the very best of their kind. The paintings are physical, infused with the presence of an animal described by the painter as 'slightly bigger than the world it's in'. The bulls also present a particularly pictorial problem: the representation of the huge surfaces of the backs and bellies, seemingly uniform yet pulsating with life. As in George Stubbs' The Whistlejacket (1762), the cattle's vivacity negates the neutrality of their white backgrounds. They float in space, shoehorning some of the rawness of their natural environment into the clinical gallery setting. Looking at them, it is difficult to avoid thinking about all the environmental issues surrounding the West's over-consumption of meat, but Fairnington refuses to see his works as political statements. 'If you make an image like this', he says, 'it's inevitable that it's contextualized by how it exists in the world, but I'm more interested in the sense of wonder that originally stimulated people to ever look at things and start painting them, going back to Durer's little clod of earth. I want some of that to be in the work. I don't want it the way it's painted to be encased in a kind of political rhetoric.'

Coline Milliard, February 2010