Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art

  • CHADDS FORD, Pennsylvania
  • /
  • May 09, 2018

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Suzanne Anker (b. 1946), Remote Sensing: Micro-Landscapes (detail), 2013–17, plaster, pigment, resin in 24 Petri dishes, each 4 x 4 x 2”. Courtesy of the artist.

This summer the Brandywine River Museum of Art will present Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art, a landmark exhibition featuring 13 major American artists whose work examines our relationship with nature—exploring both its beauty and its capacity to inspire awe and fear. Organized by the Brandywine with guest curator Suzanne Ramljak, Natural Wonders includes recent works by 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, which will investigate the intersection between the natural and artificial realms and the wild and cultivated.  

Lauren Fensterstock (b. 1975), Kiku, 2013, paper, wood, 30 x 72 x 72”. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Through some 40 recent works, which often reflect the current anxiety and concern for the sustainability of the Earth’s resources, the artists raise questions about our strained relationship with the natural world: from species extinction, to the loss of open space, to the prevalence of GMOs and the increase in designer breeding of both plants and animals. Artists such as Maya Lin, Roxy Paine, Dustin Yellin and Diana Thater present works in the exhibition that engage with such ecological concerns, including the museum debut of Thater’s Road to Hana series, which captures in a multi-screen video wall the fantastical “painted forest” of rainbow eucalyptus on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Other works enlist sophisticated technologies and techniques—from 3D printing and lenticular prints, to advanced 4K digital cinema—to capture and convey nature’s formidable powers, such as the North American premiere of Mark Tribe’s New Nature series of 4K videos drawn from wilderness preserves in the United States. Patrick Jacobs’ intricate, three-dimensional dioramas, which often focus on fungi and weeds, invoke the beauty that can be found in organic life that is often perceived as undesirable or dangerous. Likewise Jennifer Trask’s sculptures encourage the viewer to ponder the relationship between mortality and fertility, as she uses animal bones as source material for her detailed carvings of plants and flowers.

Patrick Jacobs (b. 1971), White Puffballs with Orange Slime Mold and Lichen, 2015, mixed media diorama viewed through 2 3/4” window, interior box: 14 3/4 × 11 1/4 × 9 ¼”. The West Collection, Oaks, PA.

“The history of American art in the Brandywine region, in many ways, is the history of artists exploring the power and beauty of nature,” said Thomas Padon, the James H. Duff Director of the Brandywine River Museum of Art. “With Natural Wonders, visitors will have an opportunity to experience contemporary perspectives on this subject, with works of art that challenge and confront our presumptions of nature. This exhibition will have particular resonance here, as the Brandywine River Museum of Art is located in a bucolic setting in which nature becomes an integral part of the visitor experience.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Brandywine has commissioned a site-specific piece by Kathleen Vance: a 35-foot-long recreation of a segment of the Brandywine River—complete with flowing water—in the Museum’s atrium. Known for her Traveling Landscape series of works that engage viewers in exploring the changing topography of natural waterways, Vance conducted research on the Brandywine River’s history and shoreline as a prelude to developing her piece. Her commission offers visitors the rare opportunity to see her work within view of the very body of water that inspired it. With the river visible through the Museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows, the installation directly stages the interplay of artifice and nature at the core of the exhibition.

“Our idea of the sublime in nature has been largely shaped by Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” said Suzanne Ramljak, the exhibition’s curator. “Burke identified seven unnerving aspects of the sublime—including darkness, obscurity, privation, and magnificence—and these features can be found in the interpretations of nature in this exhibition. The selected works are also alluring, arousing the mixed emotion of delight and dread that is a hallmark of sublime experience.”

Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an introductory essay by Ramljak and an incisive conversation between artists Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman, whose works have long explored the human impact on nature, and who address art’s role in the face of environmental threats. Published by Rizzoli, the catalogue will also include statements by the featured artists, providing further insight into the sources and connections to nature in their art.

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