The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents an exhibition of more than 100 works by American artists from the 18th century through present day that explores evolving ideas about the environment and our place within it. Nation’s Nation: American Art and Environment features major paintings, photographs, works on paper, and sculpture drawn from museum and private collections around the country by artists such as Ansel Adams, John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Kent Monkman (Cree), Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob August Riis, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish-Kootenai), and Andrew Wyeth. This is the first exhibition to examine how American and Native American artists reflect and shape our understanding of the environment over the last 300 years, from deeply held perspectives of interconnected ties to the universe to colonial beliefs that imagines nature as a hierarchy of species with men at the top, and also the modern emergence of ecological ethics. Organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment is on view now at PEM in Salem, Mass., through May 5, 2019.
This timely exhibition opens on the heels of landmark reports from the United Nations and the White House that underscore the dire and 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.
Nature’s Nation reconsiders American and Native American art within the context of environmental history and the study of living things’ relation to their surroundings. The exhibition highlights shifting visions and realities of nature as artists reflect and shape societal attitudes toward the natural world. As perspectives emerge, we are learning anew that the natural world is not a fixed concept but dynamic reality.
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.
The exhibition includes iconic landscapes such as Thomas Moran’s late 19th-century work that captures the sublime grandeur of the Yellowstone region and is credited with helping convince the U.S. government to establish the country’s first national park. Yet, some contend that these paintings — which include Moran’s Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park (Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone), 1872 — perpetuate Romantic myths about nature as a pristine and untouchable environment that is separate from the human experience and immune from human impact. The idyllic scene also omits the human toll: that many Indigenous people were forcibly removed from the land by U.S. soldiers to make Yellowstone the tourist destination it is today.
“This is an outstanding painting by an artist revered in the canon of American art,” said Austen Barron Bailly, coordinating curator and PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art. “But we believe it is 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 people need to have a broader framework to understand what they are looking at.”
Nature’s Nation also places historic masterworks in dialogue with contemporary responses. Alfred Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite (1871–73) presents an awe-inspiring view of the thunderous falls, while Valerie Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt (2007) questions the way traditional landscape paintings idealize nature as an untouched wilderness retreat. Her deconstructed view of the transporting painting imagines nature as something much more fragile.
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,” said 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.”
DOCUMENTATION AND ACTIVISM
The exhibition features many artists who bear witness to environmental injustices — from Alexandre Hogue’s 1939 painting, Crucified Land that depicts the destruction wrought by over-farming in the Dust Bowl era, to 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. Also on view is a poster designed by Robert Rauschenberg for the first Earth Day in 1970, and two shields designed by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota) as part of his 2016 Mirror Shield Project. Luger conceptualized shields for the water protectors to hold, encamped at Oceti Sakowin near Standing Rock, North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline construction (#NoDAPL). In response to the pipeline posing major threats to the region’s clean water and to ancient burial grounds, Luger’s mirror shields, with their reflective surfaces, protected activists on the front lines and forced law enforcement to face their own violent behavior. These shields are connected to Luger’s larger artistic practice deeply committed to collaborative social engagement. Luger shared an instructional video on social media, inviting people to create shields, and hundreds responded. A mesmerizing video of the shields in action from drone footage accompanies two shields in the exhibition.
The exhibition also raises questions about the environmental impact of the materials used to make art. To create Intrigue, artist Morris Louis used a mixture of acrylic paint and turpentine poured directly onto his canvas. Regular exposure to the toxic fumes of turpentine, a resin obtained from live trees, likely played a role in Louis’ death from lung cancer at age 49 in 1962. By then, the turpentine industry had devastated forests in the southeastern United States and endangered the health of poorly paid, primarily African American, workers.
“We have an opportunity to explore the tension between the aesthetic beauty of the work versus the dangers presented by the materials, including a look at the human cost of their use and production,” says Bailly. “These are important conversations to be having around major works of art. Things can change. It is not all doom and gloom. We want to follow the lead of the extraordinary artists included in this exhibition who have used their vision and their talents to inspire us to imagine new ways forward.”