SALEM — If you plan to check out Peabody Essex Museum’s new exhibit, “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” which opened over the weekend, expect to spend a lot of time there because, as beautiful as it is, it’s going to get you riled up. And, in this age of global warming fears, it’s going to fuel a discussion over an espresso or a beer after you leave the museum, because it provokes thought and you’ll be anxious to talk about what you’ve just experienced.
On second thought, skip the espresso and go for the decaffeinated camomile tea. You’ll be jittery enough after surveying this astonishing show. It asks “How can artists help us reimagine our understanding of nature?” Its timeliness is staggering. It’s rare for an art exhibit to foment such emotions.
Organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, “Nature’s Nation” presents more than 100 works by such artists as Ansel Adams, John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Andrew Wyeth. More than a dozen works from PEM’s celebrated Native American collection are also displayed.
Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art, stops in front of Thomas Moran’s breathtaking 1893 “Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park,” a pristine look at nature at its most beautiful that is devoid of living things, human or animal. “This is an outstanding painting by an artist revered in the canon of American art,” she said. “But we believe it’s important to recognize that works of art can reinforce destructive ideas about the environment and indigenous people. You can still love to look at this painting. What we are suggesting is that it’s easy to forget who was evicted from the land to make it look so pristine.”
Karen Kramer, PEM’s Curator of Native and American Art, said the building housing this show is located on land that was once home to Native Americans. “Indigenous people have never held this view that humans are separate from nature. There is an interconnectedness to everything. To view wilderness as this separate entity is a farce and creates major disconnects, which can lead to human environmental catastrophes.”
This exhibit is certainly timely, in light of landmark reports that warn of dire and impending consequences of climate change. Just last week, NASA scientists reported the discovery of a gigantic hole at the bottom of a glacier in West Antarctica, indicating rapid decay of the ice sheet and acceleration in global sea levels.
The first thing one sees in the exhibit is an instantly Instagrammable 12-foot yellow balloon that’s part of “Repellent Fence,” an installation of 26 tethered balloons along a two-mile route crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border where its “scary eye” is redeployed to “see” connections — not boundaries — between two cultures.
Albert Bierstadt’s 1871-73 oil painting “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite” presents a gorgeous view of the falls. But right next to it is a work by American artist Valerie Hegarty, born in 1967, questioning the way traditional landscape painting idealizes nature. Her 2007 “Fallen Bierstadt” offers a deconstructed view of the work, a decimated portrait of Bierstadt’s idyllic painting that demonstrates the fragility of nature.
Subhankar Banerjee’s 2002 aerial photograph “Caribou Migration I” shows pregnant caribou migrating to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that oil companies and some members of Congress said is the perfect spot for petroleum extraction. The work is visually spectacular, and again, incites a fury that special interests would sacrifice such natural beauty for profit.
The human impact on nature is a recurring theme in this exhibit. Alexandre Hogue’s 1939 vibrantly colorful oil painting “Crucified Land” portrays land that was destroyed by over-farming in the Dust Bowl era. Other works explore how mining, logging, and quarrying have impacted the natural world.
A 1863 stereograph by noted Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, “Wounded Trees at Gettysburg,” depicts how war ravaged the land. Nearby is David Bradley’s 2001 work “American Dream II,” which focuses on Manifest Destiny and our belief of a God-given right to expand westward no matter the cost.
An 1892 photograph shows men standing next to a towering pile of buffalo skulls. George Catlin’s 1832 oil painting “Dying Buffalo” shows a helpless animal shot with an arrow. It’s mind-blowing. Bierstadt, again, is represented with “The Last of the Buffalo,” an 1891 painting that shows a Native American hunter on horseback pursuing herds of an animal that would become endangered.
The exhibit’s final section looks at our changing planet, as artists confront the ways that humans are causing profound environmental change on a planetary scale. Robert Rauschenberg’s poster from the first Earth Day in 1970 is here. Richard Misrach’s 1998 otherworldly photograph “Swamp and Pipeline, Geisner, Louisiana” is a journalistic look at Cancer Alley, replete with dead trees and a chemically-ruined body of water. It’s sickening.
Karl Kusserow of the Princeton museum said he and co-curator Alan C. Braddock started seven years ago exploring work in climate change and the moral and ethical concerns as it applied to art. More than 50,000 visitors saw the exhibit in New Jersey. “Peabody Essex has enriched the exhibit,” he said. “Americans were here before we were, the indigenous people.”
The finest art makes you think. It stirs emotions, good and bad. “Nature’s Nation” does that. Naysayers would likely classify it as propaganda from the liberal media. No matter. This exhibit sticks with you long after you’ve left the museum. See it! It’s at PEM through May 5.