“Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment” (February 2 – May 5), an exhibition running at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, hits a trifecta of interests—environmentalism, contemporary art and Native American art. Having premiered at the Princeton University Art Museum, the show examines how American and Native American artists have both reflected and shaped our understanding of the environment.
The timely exhibition opens on the heels of landmark reports from the United Nations and the White House that underscore the impending consequences of climate change. Both conclude humans’ activities are having a dangerous impact on the environment and, as a result, there is an extreme risk of irreversibly affecting all human, built, and natural systems. It is critical to our time to acknowledge that humans, animals, water, land and sky are all connected.
More than 100 works of art—paintings, photographs, works on paper and sculpture—from the 18th-century through present day, allow the viewer to reflect upon our changing relationship with nature. The collection includes iconic masterpieces and seldom-exhibited works by artists such as Ansel Adams, John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish-Kootenai) and Andrew Wyeth.
There are landscapes such as Thomas Moran’s late 19th-century paintings that capture the grandeur of Yellowstone (and is credited with helping convince the government to establish the first national park). Yet, some contend that it perpetuates myths about nature as a pristine environment immune from human impact while also omitting the human toll: that many Indigenous people were forcibly removed to make Yellowstone the tourist destination it is today.
The lushness of Yosemite and Yellowstone is starkly held against pieces like “Crucified Land” by Alexandre Hogue (that takes up the issue of over-farming in the Dust Bowl era) and the more recent work of Subhankar Banerjee whose aerial photographs of migrating caribou challenged perceptions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as an empty wasteland ripe for petroleum extraction. Others like “Cliff Dwellers” by George Bellows and “Prospecting/Bullcreek City” David Gilmour Blythe suggest the disturbance and degradation caused by industrialisation and war.
The exhibition opens with a bold, contemporary work, Repellent Fence/Valla Repelente,by an Indigenous artist collective Postcommodity. In 2015, the collective installed 26 tethered balloons along a two-mile route crossing the United States-Mexico border. Each balloon, 10 feet in diameter and floating 50 feet high, looked out on the setting through its “scare eye,” a graphic intended to repel wildlife from property. From this aerial perspective, the “scare eye” is redeployed to “see” land, communities, and ecosystems connected as a unified whole, not divided by artificial, man-made borders and boundaries between cultures and land.
Nature’s Nation features more than a dozen works from PEM’s renowned Native American collection, an inclusion that reflects the museum’s ongoing initiative to challenge traditionally held boundaries between Native American and American art. A Chilkat robe from PEM’s collection was created entirely from materials local to the 19th-century female Tlinglt weaver: cedar bark woven with mountain goat wool. It depicts killer whale motifs and symbols of chiefly wealth and status. Ultimately, this robe embodies ideas of reciprocity and balance exchanged between the wearer and their Tlingit community, which includes other humans, animals and supernatural beings.
“Indigenous people have never held this view that humans are separate from nature. There is an interconnectedness to everything,” says Karen Kramer, coordinating curator and PEM’s curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture. “To view wilderness as this separate entity is a farce and creates major disconnects, which can lead to human environmental catastrophes.”
Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment is co-curated by Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, and Alan C. Braddock, Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History and American Studies at William & Mary. Leadership support has been provided by Shelly and Tony Malkin; Annette Merle-Smith; the Henry Luce Foundation; and the National Endowment for the Arts. Generous support has been provided by the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.
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Thanks to Amelia Kantrovitz for this post.