The Art of Be­long­ing

Na­ture’s Na­tion: amer­i­can Art and En­vi­ron­ment at Prince­ton Univer­sity Art Mu­seum

American Fine Art Magazine - - Contributors - By James D. Balestri­eri

Na­ture’s Na­tion:amer­i­can Art and En­vi­ron­ment at Prince­ton Univer­sity Art Mu­seum

Who be­longs to this place? To whom does this place be­long? When does a place be­long to you? When do you be­long to a place? Be­long­ing—and the word that hides in­side in be­long­ing: long­ing—sit at the heart of Amer­i­can land­scape art. And Amer­i­can land­scape art, it might fairly be said, lies at the heart of Amer­i­can art, even as the Amer­i­can land­scape might be said to lie at the heart of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence. Na­ture’s Na­tion:amer­i­can Art and En­vi­ron­ment—which opens at the Prince­ton Univer­sity Art Mu­seum be­fore mov­ing on to the Pe­abody

Es­sex Mu­seum in Salem, Mas­sachusetts, and the Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in Ben­tonville,arkansas— presents a wide range of Amer­i­can art—from Mark Catesby’s 18th-cen­tury paint­ings of New World flora and fauna to a 2009 pho­to­graph of plas­tic, feath­ers and bones on a beach by Chris Jor­dan; from a 19th-cen­tury Tlin­git blan­ket to a con­tem­po­rary look at a con­ti­nent in

the throes of de­mo­graphic and cli­matic up­heaval by Sal­ish-koote­nai artist Jaune Quick-to-see Smith, re-ex­am­in­ing them in light of a rel­a­tively new art his­tor­i­cal model: ec­ocrit­cism.

In their in­tro­duc­tion to the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log, Alan C. Brad­dock and Karl Kusserow de­fine ec­o­crit­i­cism, stat­ing that it “con­sid­ers ar­ti­facts of ev­ery cat­e­gory as em­body­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, be­liefs, at­ti­tudes, and as­sump­tions of one sort or an­other…as a gen­eral prin­ci­ple, though, ec­o­crit­i­cal in­quiry looks be­yond con­ven­tional hu­man­is­tic frame­works by ex­plor­ing ne­glected but per­ti­nent ev­i­dence from en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory and eco­log­i­cal thought.

In­stead of fo­cus­ing nar­rowly on land­scape im­agery, which has tended to ide­al­ize ter­res­trial na­ture as pristinely non­hu­man and nonur­ban, ec­o­crit­i­cal art his­tory con­sid­ers any cre­ative genre and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­text to be po­ten­tially wor­thy of study, re­gard­less of medium, style, pe­riod, or lo­ca­tion… It also ex­am­ines the en­vi­ron­men­tal sig­nif­i­cance of past works—even those cre­ated well be­fore the term ‘ecol­ogy’ ap­peared—by at­tend­ing to his­tor­i­cally spe­cific ev­i­dence.”

When you com­bine art­works from the past with con­tem­po­rary works un­der a com­mon the­matic um­brella and sub­ject them to a spe­cific art his­tor­i­cal ap­proach, like ec­o­crit­ic­sim, you have to walk a tightrope be­tween in­ten­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tion.as an ex­am­ple, when you look at an Albert Bier­stadt land­scape

and at­tempt to un­pack and de­code it ac­cord­ing to an ec­o­crit­i­cal, and you then set that Bier­stadt along­side Va­lerie He­garty’s overtly po­lit­i­cal— and eco­log­i­cal—de­con­struc­tion,

Fallen Bier­stadt, the chal­lenge be­comes ap­par­ent.you have to in­fer in­ten­tion and mean­ing in the 19th cen­tury work. Is Bier­stadt re­in­forc­ing Man­i­fest Des­tiny, or are his paint­ings, through the canons of aes­thetic beauty, warn­ing us against ex­ploita­tion of this New World Eden? Do his paint­ings re­veal the soul of the places he paints, or do they steal the souls of those places? Do we be­long to those places or do they be­long to us? Or are all of these things at work at once? Con­versely, you can di­rectly in­ter­ro­gate not only He­garty’s piece but the artist her­self. Fallen Bier­stadt calls at­ten­tion to the warm­ing (burn­ing) of the planet and also seems to re­pu­di­ate Bier­stadt him­self.the point is that even where there are am­bi­gu­i­ties, we can know them, or think we can.the risk is that you might as­cribe too much in terms of ec­o­crit­i­cal mean­ing to Bier­stadt and that you ac­cept He­garty’s work, ec­o­crit­i­cal as it is by na­ture, at face value, ask­ing too lit­tle of it.

The nat­u­ral world is one of the touch­stones of Amer­i­can art.we lo­cate it in Euro­pean ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion, pat­terns of clas­si­fi­ca­tion and pos­ses­sion, artists draw­ing and painting a “new” world even as oth­ers wanted to in­scribe a line around it, par­cel it out, sell it, buy it, clear it. At the same time, we imag­ine that in­dige­nous art de­scribes a dif­fer­ent sort of re­la­tion­ship: har­mony, liv­ing with the land in­stead of liv­ing on and in it.this is a vast and per­ilous over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, of course. Hu­mankind has had a pro­found im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment since the tam­ing of fire, cul­ti­va­tion and the rise of com­mu­nal liv­ing. Nei­ther Na­tive Amer­i­cans nor Euro­peans are mono­lithic; en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and en­demic war­fare are un­for­tu­nate as­pects of the story of hu­man­ity the world over. Dif­fer­ent tribes have had dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ships to the nat­u­ral world, de­struc­tive as well as bal­anced; the Euro­peans who came here with eco­nomic gain in mind were ac­com­pa­nied by artists, nat­u­ral­ists, writ­ers and philoso­phers whose at­ti­tudes to­ward na­ture in the Amer­i­cas lean away from profit in the di­rec­tion of won­der.

Thought ex­per­i­ment: sup­pose you had some artistic abil­ity. Sup­pose you were hired by a cor­po­ra­tion to go out into a wilder­ness to sketch and paint the land­scape—birds, an­i­mals, flow­ers, plants, trees, rocks, wa­ters—in or­der to dis­cern their suit­abil­ity as re­sources for set­tle­ment and ex­ploita­tion. How soon would you fall in love with the land you roamed? How soon would you be­gin to hate your job and lament the role you are paid to play? How many ar­gu­ments would you make in your mind for its preser­va­tion?you think not? Think of the ex­pe­di­tions to the Amer­i­can West that ended with pleas for preser­va­tion.

An­dré Mal­raux main­tained that the arts show cul­tures at their best.

Why is this true? Be­cause no one who ever painted a flower hated that flower.you would be hard pressed to find, in any Amer­i­can art­work, an un­al­loyed en­dorse­ment of Man­i­fest Des­tiny. Makes me won­der: how might Amer­i­can ex­pan­sion in the 19th cen­tury have been dif­fer­ent if Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Dis­cov­ery had had an artist in its ranks?

It’s worth­while pair­ing works in the ex­hi­bi­tion, find­ing ques­tions in their ten­sions. Charles Will­son

Peale’s 1822 painting The Artist in His

Mu­seum placed be­side the anony­mous Tlin­git artist’s Chilkat Blan­ket, cre­ated prior to 1832, seem to em­anate from en­tirely dif­fer­ent worlds. Peale, in this self-por­trait, draws the cur­tain on his mu­seum, and by ex­ten­sion, na­ture, specif­i­cally Amer­i­can na­ture, it­self.the spec­i­mens are dead, stuffed, placed in an or­der, clas­si­fied. In death, they are brought into knowl­edge, into sci­ence, where they can be won­dered at and stud­ied.the Chilkat blan­ket de­picts a pod of or­cas within a sin­gle orca, giv­ing us views of the whales from both sides, from the top—the two hatchet forms at top left and right, and from the front.two faces, per­haps deities, pre­side over the pod. De­spite their dif­fer­ences in in­ten­tion—the painting de­pict­ing a mu­seum, the blan­ket to be given in a pot­latch, a rit­ual ex­change of lux­u­ries be­tween North­west Coast peo­ples—each is the re­sult of close ob­ser­va­tion of na­ture and an at­tempt to de­scribe those ob­ser­va­tions.the mu­seum ex­hibits dis­creet an­i­mals, con­nect­ing them in a clas­si­cal Lin­naean “chain of be­ing” while the blan­ket de­scribes a sin­gle orca from a va­ri­ety of points of view, in flow with oth­ers of its kind, as if they are one sin­gle be­ing. Each work is an at­tempt to draw a cur­tain on na­ture, to de­scribe as­pects of na­ture and to find an artistic means of cap­tur­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing those find­ings.

Ge­orge Catlin’s 1832 painting Dy­ing Buf­falo, Shot with an Ar­row is filled, at first, with naive pathos.the death of buf­falo meant life for the Na­tive Amer­i­cans who de­pended on them. But we know what hap­pened—or al­most hap­pened—to the buf­falo, and we know what hap­pened to the great Plains peo­ples who fol­lowed them. Pathos be­comes a pre­cur­sor to the tragedy we feel in the anony­mous pho­to­graph, Men Stand­ing with Pile of Buf­falo Skulls, taken just six decades later. Alexan­dre Hogue’s Cru­ci­fied Land and Isamu Noguchi’s This Tor­tured Earth each seem to cri­tique hu­mankind’s view of the Earth—and the earth— as some­thing to be used, con­torted, shaped by us and for us, with­out re­gard for it, or for the fu­ture, but their artists’ eyes for for­mal ar­range­ment get in the way. they make the ug­li­ness they want to de­pict some­how beau­ti­ful, go­ing, in some mea­sure, against the grain of their own in­ten­tion.

Prospect­ing/bull­creek City, David Gil­mour Blythe’s startling Civil War era work, and Alexis Rock­man’s 1992 painting Aviary de­ploy hu­mor as their works defy ex­pec­ta­tions. In Blythe’s painting, a prospec­tor, ex­pect­ing a

wilder­ness finds a pol­luted, blasted waste­land, where the bones of an ox— ves­tige of an agrar­ian past—mir­ror the scaf­fold­ing of oil der­ricks and a pall of in­dus­trial smog hangs over the land. Sim­i­larly, Rock­man’s Aviary is filled with ex­otic species of birds—many of whom would not be found to­gether in the wild—all perched on an ar­ti­fi­cial tree and sus­tained by a man-made drink­ing foun­tain. Look­ing at it closely, the spec­tac­u­lar sun­set is a painted zoo back­drop, Peale’s mu­seum come to life. The in­tro­duc­tion to the Na­ture’s Na­tion con­cludes: “Ecocr it­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions about art en­com­pass his­tory, pol­i­tics, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, metaphor, ma­te­ri­al­ity, and more, all of which raise provoca­tive ques­tions: what are the lim­its and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of art in an era of eco­log­i­cal cri­sis? In ad­di­tion to trans­form­ing the planet, is this cri­sis also forc­ing a re­assess­ment of re­ceived art his­tor­i­cal cat­e­gories and meth­ods by cre­at­ing new aes­thetic op­por­tu­ni­ties and canons, not to men­tion new ap­proaches to mu­seum dis­play and in­ter­pre­ta­tion? …the An­thro­pocene and its plan­e­tary ef­fects de­mand that we ex­pand art his­tory even fur­ther.”

Maybe ex­pand­ing art his­tory even fur­ther isn’t the an­swer. Maybe ex­pand­ing the mak­ing of art is. I’ll say it again, at the risk of re­peat­ing my­self—no one who ever painted a flower hated that flower. af­ter you go to Na­ture’s Na­tion, go home, si­lence all your elec­tronic de­vice and so­cial me­dia, pick up a pen­cil and draw a flower. It’ll do you and the planet a world of good.

San­ford Robin­son Gif­ford (1823-1880), Hunter Moun­tain, Twi­light, 1866. Oil on can­vas. Terra Foun­da­tion for Amer­i­can Art, Daniel J. Terra Col­lec­tion, 1999.57. Terra Foun­da­tion for Amer­i­can Art, Chicago / Art Re­source, NY.

Alexan­dre Hogue (1898-1994), Cru­ci­fied Land, 1939. Oil on can­vas. Gift of Thomas Gil­crease Foun­da­tion, 1955 Gil­crease Mu­seum, Tulsa, OK. © Estate of Alexan­dre Hogue.

Ge­orge Wesley Bel­lows (1882-1925), Cliff Dwellers, 1913. Oil on can­vas. Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art, Los An­ge­les County Fund (16.4).

Charles Will­son Peale (1741-1827), The Artist in His Mu­seum, 1822. Oil on can­vas. Penn­syl­va­nia Academy of the Fine Arts. Gift of Mrs. Sarah Har­ri­son (The Joseph Har­ri­son Jr. Col­lec­tion), 1878.1.2.

Ge­orge Catlin (1796-1872), Dy­ing Buf­falo, Shot with an Ar­row, 1832-33. Oil on can­vas. Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum, gift of Mrs. Joseph Har­ri­son Jr. Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. / Art Re­source, NY.

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), This Tor­tured Earth, 1943. Bronze. The Noguchi Mu­seum. © 2018The Isamu Noguchi Foun­da­tion and Gar­den Mu­seum, New York / Artists Rights So­ci­ety (ARS), New York.

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Rail Shoot­ing on the Delaware, 1876.Oil on can­vas.Yale Univer­sity Art Gallery. Be­quest of Stephen Carl­ton Clark, B.A. 1903.

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