The Art of Belonging
Nature’s Nation: american Art and Environment at Princeton University Art Museum
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.