Artists since antiquity have depicted, and often mimicked, the splendors of nature. Throughout the centuries, such representations have embodied the shifting relationship between humans and their natural surroundings. Nature has thus proved to be a fertile terrain for projecting a culture’s desires, fears, whimsy, or will. Artists in the twenty-first century have continued this cultural dialogue with nature, and as this exhibition reveals, expanded it in surprising ways, bringing their distinct concerns and creative vision to the subject.
Natural Wonders: the Sublime in Contemporary Art showcases the work of thirteen American artists who engage nature in all its fierce magnificence. Beyond just highlighting nature’s beauty, the featured artists—Suzanne Anker, Lauren Fensterstock, Patrick Jacobs, Maya Lin, Roxy Paine, Miljohn Ruperto & Ulrik Heltoft, Diana Thater, Jennifer Trask, Mark Tribe, Kathleen Vance, T.J. Wilcox, and Dustin Yellin—also hint at the more disquieting aspects of the natural world. As such, the works in this exhibition can be viewed as a type of neo-sublime, mixing the beautiful and terrifying to produce awe in the beholder in accord with tenets of eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke. And not unlike nineteenth-century sublime landscapes of the Hudson River School or the Romantic era, these recent works conjure the raw power and unruliness of nature along with its harmonious effects—a state at once captivating and unsettling. Indeed, a menace can be found lurking within most of the work in Natural Wonders, and this danger often stems from human intervention.
The supreme artifice demonstrated by the artists in this exhibition serves as enticing means to disturbing ends. These works harbor pressing concerns beneath their alluring surfaces, and the exhibition’s selection raises a number of key issues involving our relationship with the natural world, including species extinction, over cultivation of wilderness, GMOs and designer breeding. Many of the artists included in the exhibition are interested in exploring the increasingly fine line between the natural and artificial realms, between the wild and cultivated. Some further engage sophisticated technologies and techniques—including 3D printing, lenticular screens, and 4K digital cinema—in order to capture and convey nature’s formidable powers.
Along with presenting a range of contemporary approaches to nature, artifice, and the sublime, the exhibition provides key opportunities for the artists to extend and showcase their work in a fresh context. For example, Mark Tribe presents for the first time in North America his “New Nature” series of 4K video stills drawn from wilderness preserves in the United States. Furthermore, the exhibition marks the museum debut of Diana Thater’s Road to Hana series (2014). In addition, the exhibition provides an opportunity for such well-known artists such as Dustin Yellin, Maya Lin, Diana Thater and Roxy Paine to be seen and discussed in the context of ecologically minded art, a crucial but lesser known aspect of their artistic practice that was also foregrounded in the catalogue through critical commentary and artist statements.
The fully illustrated catalogue for Natural Wonders: the Sublime in Contemporary Art is a critical document that extends the artistic and ecological subjects raised in the exhibition. The publication was published by Rizzoli and includes an introductory essay by guest curator Suzanne Ramljak, contextualizing the works within historical and contemporary discussions of the sublime, prevailing notions of wild and domesticated nature, and in relation to issues such as genetic engineering and artificial life. The catalogue also features a probing conversation between artists Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman, whose works have long explored the human impact on the natural world, and who address the role of art in the face of possible environmental ruin. Dion and Rockman have maintained a close creative and intellectual relationship since the 1980s, and their exchange is a fascinating opportunity to survey the shifting artistic strategies and impasses in their own practice, and that of others, during the past three decades. Also included will be statements by the featured artists, providing further insight into the sources and connections of their art.
An activating component of the project is a site-specific commission by Kathleen Vance, whose installation in the atrium of the Brandywine—the Museum’s first—offers a multivalent extension of themes explored within the exhibition galleries. Vance created a 25-foot-long recreation of the Brandywine River—replete with flowing water—in the atrium, translating with uncanny accuracy the topography of the actual river visible through its floor to ceiling windows. This commission offers Vance the opportunity to expand her explorations of evolving waterways, and to conduct site research on the Brandywine River’s history and changing shoreline. The Museum’s architecture and pastoral setting provide Vance with the rare occasion to exhibit her sculpture within view of the body of water that is its inspiration, beautifully staging the interplay of artifice and nature found throughout the exhibition.
In co-opting the aesthetics of nature, the artists in Natural Wonders reveal a shrewd understanding of nature’s various guises and permutations. Offering seductive encounters with natural phenomena, the works in this exhibition encourages viewers to examine prevailing notions about the natural world and the impact of human intervention. These sublime evocations are at once a tribute and a warning, signaling both the wonders and dangers lurking beneath nature’s sumptuous façade.
The exhibition is organized by Brandywine River Museum of Art. Suzanne Ramljak is the guest curator.
This exhibition is generously sponsored by
Morris & Boo Stroud, Yaverland Foundation, and Joan S. Blaine