Quantcast

This Exhibit Examines Nature and Environmental Justice in Three Centuries of American Art

Popular
Left: Valerie Hegarty. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum, Right: Collection Lannan Foundation © Subhankar Banerjee

By Patrick Rogers

The fact that nature and nation share a common root—the Latin verb nasci, "to be born"—might rate as trivia to most people. But in the context of early American art, at least, the connection has profound cultural meaning. Paintings of natural vistas, from New York's Hudson Valley to the purple mountains and red deserts of the West, became early symbols of a young nation and its so-called manifest destiny. In the minds of many early Americans and pioneers, the land was out there for "us" (as in, men of European decent) to celebrate—but also to conquer. The very idea of American civilization meant destroying some of those beautiful, natural vistas to build the cities, farms, and factories of the future.


That is just one of the contradictions set up—and rapidly deconstructed—in a sweeping reappraisal of American art seen through the lenses of environmental justice and the emerging theory of ecocriticism now on view at the Princeton University Art Museum. First developed in the 1990s as a cultural inquiry into the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau and others, ecocriticism has expanded into the study of the ecological significance of visual art, music, architecture, and other creative fields.

Albert Bierstadt, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, ca. 1871-73North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

In Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment, museum curator Karl Kusserow and Alan Braddock, a professor of art history and American studies at the College of William and Mary, play with the meaning of more than 100 paintings and objects from the Colonial period to the present day. With fresh research and interpretations, the exhibit peels back traditional views of early American art to raise questions about colonialism, racial and ethnic representation, pollution, and humanity's ethical responsibilities to nature.

The free exhibition starts off with the juxtaposition of Albert Bierstadt's Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, an iconic 19th-century Romantic landscape, and Valerie Hegarty's 2007 Fallen Bierstadt, a facsimile of the same painting. Bierstadt, who visited Yosemite Valley in the 1860s, described it as America's Garden of Eden and depicted it as a divine creation untouched by human hands. In Hegarty's version, however, the painting has been slashed and burned, with its missing pieces sitting on the floor below. Hegarty, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, sullies Bierstadt's scene in ways similar to how humans have damaged the environment, and in so doing, she skewers the antiquated notion of nature as sublime and beyond our reach. "She literally dematerializes that vision of nature to suggest it's not necessarily the only vision," said Kusserow.

Valerie Hegarty, Fallen Bierstadt, 2007© Valerie Hegarty. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum

The exhibit's intention, however, is not to deny or disparage the power of artists like Bierstadt to shape prevailing views of the environment. Bierstadt's popularity in the late 1800s helped encourage the creation of California's first state parks and the launch of modern conservationism. Take, for example, the large-format 2002 photograph Caribou Migration I by Subhankar Banerjee, which captures a vast section of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as seen from an airplane overhead. Single-file lines of barely discernible female caribou cross the icy landscape on their way to calving grounds to the north.

The image has a quiet, peaceful quality to it but caused an uproar back in 2003 during the second Bush administration. As the Indian-born photographer was preparing a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, he became caught up in the political fight over Arctic drilling when a congresswoman displayed the caribou image on the House floor to counter claims that the refuge was a frozen wasteland. Suddenly, Banerjee's major exhibition at the government-run museum was downsized to a gallery in the basement, an act that some saw as censorship. The move galvanized activism against drilling the Arctic, and Banerjee's photograph is now an icon of the environmental movement.

Caribou Migration I by Subhankar BanerjeeCollection Lannan Foundation © Subhankar Banerjee

Nature's Nation also zooms in on the production of some earlier American works of art, such as a chest of drawers by Philadelphia cabinetmakers circa 1761. The exhibit presents the highboy of tulip poplar, white cedar, and imported mahogany as an artifact of exploitation. As the museum commentary explains, this gleaming mahogany, meant to embellish an elite Colonial-era home, was probably harvested in Jamaica or Central America by enslaved Africans living in cruel and deplorable conditions. In a short amount of time, loggers cleared much of the region's tropical forests, along with the wildlife they supported. The land then became sugar plantations, where once again slaves suffered terrible fates.

Probably Henry Cliffton and Thomas Carteret, high chest of drawers, ca. 1760. Princeton University, Prospect House. Photo by Bruce M. White

The production origins of Morris Louis's color field paintings of the mid-20th century are also highlighted. Louis used thin washes of color in large abstract compositions like Intrigue, 1954, by diluting acrylic paints with gallons of turpentine. Praised for their flatness and airy immateriality, Louis's "veil paintings" are brought back to earth by an essay describing the notorious "turpentine camps" of the American South. A Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange accompanies the essay. The 1936 image shows a mother and her barefoot children and is titled Turpentine worker's family near Cordele, Alabama. Father's wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. Needless to say, these mostly African-American laborers have, until recently, never been seen or acknowledged as playing a role in the production of museum-quality art.

Morris Louis, Intrigue, 1954Princeton University Art Museum © 1954, Morris Louis

Nature's Nation argues that in the dawn of the Anthropocene period, in which humans play the predominant role in shaping the planet, we urgently need a new way of seeing the world around us—including within art and culture. "One of the great things about ecocriticism, which is the approach we take, is that it enables you to see as if through a new pair of glasses the environmental stories in any kind of work of art, not just in landscape paintings," said Kusserow. For many viewers, this mind-expanding art show at Princeton will be the first step toward that new understanding.

Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, through January 6, 2019. Admission is free.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Micromobility is the future of transportation in cities, but cities and investors need to plan ahead to avoid challenges. Jonny Kennaugh / Unsplash

By Carlo Ratti, Ida Auken

On the window of a bike shop in Copenhagen, a sign reads: Your next car is a bike.

Read More Show Less
An American flag waves in the wind at the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, California on May 17 where a trial against Monsanto took place. Alva and Alberta Pilliod, were awarded more than $2 billion in damages in their lawsuit against Monsanto, though the judge in the case lowered the damage award to $87 million. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

By Carey Gillam

For the last five years, Chris Stevick has helped his wife Elaine in her battle against a vicious type of cancer that the couple believes was caused by Elaine's repeated use of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide around a California property the couple owned. Now the roles are reversed as Elaine must help Chris face his own cancer.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Butterfly habitats have fallen 77 percent in the last 50 years. Pixabay / Pexels

The last 50 years have been brutal for wildlife. Animals have lost their habitats and seen their numbers plummet. Now a new report from a British conservation group warns that habitat destruction and increased pesticide use has on a trajectory for an "insect apocalypse," which will have dire consequences for humans and all life on Earth, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Six of the nineteen wind turbines which were installed on Frodsham Marsh, near the coal-powered Fiddler's Ferry power station, in Helsby, England on Feb. 7, 2017.

Sales of electric cars are surging and the world is generating more and more power from renewable sources, but it is not enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to stop the global climate crisis, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Read More Show Less
"Globally, we're starting to see examples of retailers moving away from plastics and throwaway packaging, but not at the urgency and scale needed to address this crisis." Greenpeace

By Jake Johnson

A Greenpeace report released Tuesday uses a hypothetical "Smart Supermarket" that has done away with environmentally damaging single-use plastics to outline a possible future in which the world's oceans and communities are free of bags, bottles, packaging and other harmful plastic pollutants.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Children are forced to wear masks due to the toxic smoke from peat land fires in Indonesia. Aulia Erlangga / CIFOR

By Irene Banos Ruiz

Pediatricians in New Delhi, India, say children's lungs are no longer pink, but black.

Our warming planet is already impacting the health of the world's children and will shape the future of an entire generation if we fail to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (35.6°F), the 2019 Lancet Countdown Report on health and climate change shows.

Read More Show Less
Private homes surround a 20 inch gas liquids pipeline which is part of the Mariner East II project on Oct. 5, 2017 in Marchwood, Penn. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The FBI is looking into how the state of Pennsylvania granted permits for a controversial natural gas pipeline as part of a corruption investigation, the AP reports.

Read More Show Less
Three cows who were washed off their North Carolina island by Hurricane Dorian have been found alive after swimming at least two miles. Carolina Wild Ones / Facebook

Three cows who were washed off their North Carolina island by Hurricane Dorian have been found alive after swimming at least two miles, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less