Collaboratively written by Lauren Bobyock (former Art + Communications Intern,) Liz Jelsomine (Exhibitions Coordinator), and Christina Catanese (Director of Environmental Art)
Though artists have always been inspired by nature, with the growing awareness of climate change and other ecological crises, an increasing number engage with themes of nature, landscape, and how people and culture connect to them. Over the past few seasons, several exhibitions in our region explored these ideas and the Schuylkill Center environmental art staff took a few field trips to enrich our thinking.
The relationship between beauty and the sublime is complex. Last fall, the Brandywine River Museum of Art examined this relationship in Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art. During our visit, Schuylkill Center staff pondered how the Brandywine produced this exhibition, which speaks to the state of nature in the world.
The show was a flowing, engaging experience throughout. Thirteen artists participated in the show and work ranged from miniatures to 3D printing.
I recognized one of the artist’s miniature work from a larger installation (located in Center City, Philadelphia at 16th & Chancellor Streets). The piece has since closed, but once covered an entire building side (pictured below.) The artist, Patrick Jacobs, had a mural of a dandelion field painted on the side of a building, and upon closer inspection, viewers came across a tiny peep hole, revealing what looked to be a vast landscape of dandelions in the countryside.
While the work in this show was undoubtedly beautiful, even peaceful, the museum’s write-up of said that a closer look revealed “a menace can be found lurking within most of the work in Natural Wonders, and this danger often stems from human intervention.”
Issues ranged from species extinction and cultivation of wilderness to designer breeding. Some pieces demanded your attention, like the large videos playing in the gallery, or artificial flowers up to your waist. Other works pulled you in, requiring more detailed inspection, such as the little forests and flowing water barely peeking through old suitcase trunks.
Maya Lin’s Pin River challenged traditional ways of mapping. Instead of highlighting land with water being a part of the landscape, Lin mapped and highlighted the Hudson River as the main focus. Lin mapped only the water bodies themselves, removing other geographic reference points and letting the water’s shape and path stand on its own. In the case of the Hudson, the choice of nails was especially significant given the legacy of heavy metal pollution in the river.
What interests me most is the ability for human relationships with nature to be visible through art, whether intended or not. The Pennsylvania Landscape in Impressionism and Contemporary Art at the Woodmere Art Museum that was on view September 2018–January 2019. The Woodmere Museum said, “juxtapositions of paintings and works in other media reveal how artistic practice has evolved and social context has become urgent in ways that could not have been imagined in the past.”
This exhibition included pieces from over a hundred years ago, as well as work made in recent years. Pieces began as traditional works. Artistic views regarding nature and the social landscape at the time could be seen. Over time, a shift to contemporary happened, where the views of artists remained present, yet were specific to challenges and outlooks we have with the environment today. Work also specifically focused on the Pennsylvania landscape. As a result, shifts in relationships towards the land were made especially clear.
We were delighted to see work in the show by artists we’ve had the pleasure of working with at the Schuylkill Center, including 3D videos by Pete Rose. Layering multiple views of populated areas in the city, such as a skatepark, Rose placed viewers in the space and provided them with a closer look at the people and activities happening there. Sandy Sorlien is no stranger to the Schuylkill Center and also displayed images from her INLAND project in our gallery. Sorlien photo documented the 200-year-old abandoned Schuylkill Navigation system that once literally fueled the Industrial Revolution.
Natural Wonders at the Brandywine River Museum and The Pennsylvania Landscape in Impressionism and Contemporary Art at the Woodmere Art Museum both exhibited art that depicts people relating to the environment, displaying the change in those relationships over time. While it may not always be intended or overt, art shows perspectives that individuals have towards our natural world, society, politics, and beyond.