Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art

September 24, 2022 - January 08, 2023
Mark Dion, Blood Red Coral, 2013

Mark Dion, Blood Red Coral, 2013, resin and assorted objects, 33 1/4 x 17 x 9 in. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

Courtney Mattison, Coral Triangle II, 2015, Glazed stoneware and porcelain, 19 x 17 x 9 in. Courtesy of the artist

Courtney Mattison, Coral Triangle II, 2015, Glazed stoneware and porcelain, 19 x 17 x 9 in. Courtesy of the artist

Wall covered with patterned wallpaper and insects
Jennifer Angus, Wistful Wild, 2022. Mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist.
James Prosek, Moth Cluster IV, 2016

James Prosek, Moth Cluster IV, 2016, Pen, ink, and silkscreen on paper, 65 x 140 in. Courtesy of the artist and Waqas Wajahat, New York

Fragile Earth highlighted the diverse approaches taken by four of the leading contemporary artists—Jennifer Angus, Mark Dion, Courtney Mattison and James Prosek—whose work engages with environmental themes.

Spanning two galleries, the exhibition included striking works reflecting on the vulnerability of the environment, created in a variety of media by Angus, Dion, Mattison and Prosek. The Brandywine’s presentation of Fragile Earth also included a site-specific installation by Angus and a commissioned mural by Prosek that explores the plants and animals native to the Brandywine Valley.

These artists were selected for the profound message their works convey about environmental conservation. They transform natural and non-traditional materials, like insects and found debris, into art in order to make visible the human role in global climate change, and to reveal how our daily choices may endanger our planet’s future.

–Jennifer Stettler Parsons, Fragile Earth curator

Artist and professor Jennifer Angus staged an immersive installation in the Brandywine’s Strawbridge Family Gallery, activating the intimate space with elaborate displays of preserved insects. Pinning brilliantly colored insects to the walls in ornamental patterns, Angus creates surprising beauty, while also reinforcing their importance to the ecosystem. For the Brandywine’s presentation of Fragile Earth, Angus adapted a wallpaper design she discovered in upstairs in Andrew Wyeth’s studio—a National Historic Landmark owned and operated by the Museum—paying homage to the institution’s history and sense of place. Angus redesigned the wallpaper, inserting illustrations to reference N. C. Wyeth’s career. She also created a signature “insect wallpaper,” forming a pattern of Malaysian periodic cicadas pinned to the wall. Her reconceptualization of traditional cabinets of curiosity into intricate and empathetic experiences make her a much sought-after artist. Installations of her work have appeared at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Shelburne Museum and the Hudson River Museum. 

Conceptual artist Mark Dion is known internationally for assemblages that critique treatment of the environment and the way naturalists have traditionally studied, classified and preserved natural specimens. His commissions include a permanent installation at the Olympic Sculpture Park for the Seattle Art Museum, and he recently completed a residency at the La Brea Tar Pits—part of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles. Among the works on view, his New England Cabinet of Marine Debris (Lyme Art Colony) (2019) features discarded items collected along the New England shoreline arranged in the fashion of Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosity. Dion also created new works for this presentation of Fragile Earth, including a sculpture called Still Life in Black in White (2022), which alludes to the threat that oil spills pose to penguins, as well as a study for a proposed ranger station—a nod to the educational work of the Brandywine Conservancy.

Sculptor and ocean advocate Courtney Mattison displayed her monumental, intricately detailed ceramic wall reliefs that replicate the beauty of coral reefs at the same time referencing their vulnerability. Mattison’s advanced degrees in environmental science and ceramic sculpture have led to interdisciplinary commissions for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and National Geographic. Her works have been featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Diego, where she was artist-in-residence, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, and Wave Hill in the Bronx. At Brandywine, Mattison’s works on view include her flagship Our Changing Seas III (2014) installation, as well as newer works like Surface Tension II (2020) and the beautiful, swirling Gyre I (2022). Mattison’s message is one of caution but also one of hope for the regeneration of natural environments, using her entrancing sculptures to inspire action.

Described as a contemporary John James Audubon, James Prosek is an artist and naturalist who considers how we engage nature both scientifically and artistically. Solo exhibitions at Yale University Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the North Carolina Museum of Art, as well as exhibitions at the Royal Academy, London, the U.S. Embassies of Afghanistan and Nigeria, and Asia Society Hong Kong Center have brought him both national and international attention. Commissioned by Brandywine, Prosek created one of his signature hand-painted, silhouette-style murals on site, highlighting the flora and fauna of the Brandywine Valley. On a visit to the area, Prosek caught a red-breasted sunfish in a stream that runs through the Brandywine Conservancy’s Laurels Preserve in Chester County, PA, inspiring a new watercolor, which is included in the exhibition. Prosek’s largest outdoor installation to date—a variation on a 2021 painting which is hanging in the gallery—graced the façade of the Museum. Titled Invisible Boundaries, both works consider the symbolism of the U.S. flag in relation to nature. Incorporating 50 images of state animals and the bald eagle, Invisible Boundaries illustrates the fact that animals inhabit ecosystems independent of geographic boundaries between states or countries. 

This exhibition builds on the success of the Brandywine’s 2018 exhibition, Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art, which displayed the work of 13 artists who likewise investigated humanity’s relationship with the environment. Organized by the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, and curated by its Associate Curator, Jennifer Stettler Parsons, Ph.D., Fragile Earth is accompanied by a catalogue featuring extensive photography of the artists’ 2019 installations at the Florence Griswold Museum. The catalogue includes essays and written dialogues by Parsons, the participating artists, as well as renowned environmental scientist, the Honorable Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D.

The Brandywine River Museum of Art is the ultimate venue for this exhibition, which previously debuted at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut in 2019. Working with Parsons and the four artists, Amanda Burdan, Senior Curator at Brandywine, updated the exhibition to incorporate works made by the artists in the interim. Over 40% of the works on view are new to this iteration of the exhibition. 

View the exhibition's digital Field Guide


Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art is organized by the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT. At Brandywine, it is made possible with support from Barbara B. Aronson, Theodore R. Aronson, and Morris & Boo Stroud.