The Brandywine River Museum is housed in an old gristmill on the Brandywine River. It’s surrounded – particularly in the summer – by nature growing lushly and thickly right outside. It’s hard for the art inside to compete with the view outside.
So the 13 artists in “Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art” shrank nature, manufactured it, and contorted it to fit inside the gallery. Tiny glass diorama baubles – exquisite in their floral detail – are set into the walls like peepholes (Patrick Jacobs). Black manufactured chrysanthemums made of wood and paper stand almost 3 feet tall in orderly rows (Lauren Fensterstock).
The artist Kathleen Vance, who splits her time between rural Maryland and urban Brooklyn, included a few pieces of luggage containing river dioramas flowing with real water.
“It’s about both our desire to have nature in our company, and also about the possessiveness,” said curator Suzanne Ramljak. “It’s a love, but a smothering love. We want it so much, we want to own it, carry it. We want to call it our own.”
The museum commissioned Vance to create a suspended, working model of the Brandywine River snaking around a pillar outside the gallery. Viewers can turn their heads 180 degrees and see the actual Brandywine River slowly churning beyond a giant plate-glass window.
Unlike previous American art about nature – such as that of the iconic Hudson River School with grandiose views of wild, New World landscapes that few patrons would ever see in person – these contemporary artists present nature in a complicated and sometimes fraught relationship with mankind.
Maya Lin – famous for her Vietnam War Memorial – re-created the Hudson River using thousands of nails tapped into a white wall. Like a kind of hardware pixelation, the nails form the stark shape of the Hudson River in a way the Hudson River School never would have: as an aerial view stripped of all color.
Another wall shows Lin’s aerial views of lakes, created in splatters of molten silver.
The sublime of the show’s title refers to nature’s transcendent beauty and frightening danger. Much of the work is conscious of nature’s ability to destroy people — and vice versa.
Suzanne Anker made two dozen 3D prints of rotting organic matter, set in petri dishes. Each appears to be a miniature landscape with craggy cliffs and tiny mountains; the laboratory setting and the decomposing material speak to the artist’s concerns about the degradation of nature at the hand of science.
“It’s not always that we are the threat to environment. It’s not a black/white, humans bad/nature good thing, but a recognition of this porousness,” said Ramljak. “How natural is it? Where does culture step in?”
“Natural Wonders” will be on view through October.