Herbert List

“Nose Surgery, Vienna, Austria,” 1944 by Herbert List.

Copyright Herbert List Estate, Hamburg, Germany. Courtesy of Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

As a child of a German couple who toured Europe with a traveling menagerie, Hermann Präuscher was no stranger to bizarre sights. So it was perhaps not unexpected when, in 1871, he opened Präuscher’s Panoptikum, a wax museum of oddities in Vienna that displayed likenesses of historical figures, strange inventions, and anatomical anomalies. In 1944, photographer Herbert List—whose work was published in magazines like Vogue, Life, and Harper’s Bazaar—documented this controversial chamber of horrors, and now those beautifully disturbing images are the starting point of “Panopticum,” a group exhibition currently on display at Robert Miller Gallery in New York.

“There’s that surreal line between something that attracts you and something that repulses you, and I was thinking very much about contemporary artists making work along those lines,” says curator, Kevin Moore, who included a 2007 photograph by Taryn Simon of a woman in an operating room about to receive a hymenoplasty, a Cindy Sherman shot of a severely deformed woman, and a film strip of a porn actress spreading her legs by Robert Heinecken in the show.

For the exhibition’s centerpiece, Moore recruited artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, who installed the interiors of a shuttered pharmacy from Nyack, New York in the gallery, filling the space with, among other things, sculptures of airbrushed birthday cakes; cats coated with rice, beans and seeds; and their very own fictional line of cosmetic products branded “Picasso. ” The overall effect is odd and eerie— Präuscher would no doubt have approved.

“Panopticum” is on display through April 12 at Robert Miller Gallery.