CHADDS FORD, Penn. — You could go for a walk in the surrounding woods or take a kayak out along the Brandywine River — this is, after all, Wyeth territory (both N.C. and Andrew painted landscapes here). But instead, on a crisp September afternoon, you find yourself drawn inside the 19th-century mill building that houses the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to see Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art.
A video projection focused on a single woodland scene for 24 hours shows undulating patterns of light formed by shadows of the trees. A leaf meanders its way to the ground; an insect buzzes by. A small pool of water shimmers and trickles, but not much else happens.
When we come upon a scene like this in nature, we might stop for a photo, perhaps force ourselves to meditate for a moment, searching for peace and a spiritual connection, before quickly moving on. Mark Tribe’s “Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest, Ulster County, New York,” from the series New Nature (2016–17), allows us to linger more than we might in the wild, where fellow hikers, inclement weather, or mosquitoes compel us to be on our way. It allows us to enjoy the scene.
According to a wall text accompanying this piece, we are more likely to experience nature on a digital screen than in an immersive setting. “In an age of virtual reality and inescapable human impact, is nature as real as it used to be?” asks Tribe. “And how could we use technologies of simulation (including relatively straightforward ones, like video) to preserve the experience of a vanishing wilderness?” By providing a voyeuristic view, the artist awakens us to a primal urge to get outside, to smell the moss, to feel the ferns and rocks, to listen to the water.
The 13 artists in Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art straddle the line between natural and artificial, wild and domesticated. Reminiscent of the 19th-century sublime landscapes of the Hudson River School or the Romanticists, these contemporary works summon the raw power and unruliness of nature and its ability to inspire awe.
“The sublime is a region of pleasurable peril, a wondrous land with deep undertows and the pungent scent of suspense,” writes guest curator Suzanne Ramljak in the exhibition catalogue. “Beneath the sumptuous facades of these works lie urgent concerns about habitat loss, endangered species, environmental toxins, bioengineering and our growing alienation from nature.”
What if nature could be packed up in a suitcase and taken along on vacation? Kathleen Vance has created natural tableaus, including streams and waterfalls with real running water, inside of vintage valises. Her Traveling Landscapes series (2008–17), including one inside a steamer trunk, seem to suggest an era when vacationers sought respite in the Adirondacks or the Catskills. The trunks, lit by hidden fluorescent tubes, are partly ajar, letting viewers peek at the rolling hills and babbling brooks within.
In the museum’s atrium, the water continues to flow. The Brandywine River, outside the large windows, wends its way around the building. Indoors, spiraling around the museum’s central column, Vance has created a 35-foot installation re-imagining the river, to show the positive impact the Brandywine Conservancy has had on protecting and conserving land, water and natural resources of the river. Vance has incorporated organic material from the river’s banks into the commissioned piece.
Everything in Natural Wonders is a manufactured landscape — although not of the toxic waste/landfill/ocean gyre variety. However, these miniature worlds depend on technology to bring nature to us.
Suzanne Anker’s “Remote Sensing: Micro-Landscapes” — petri dishes filled with specimens that appear to be biological — are 3-D prints in resin and suggest bioengineering and genetic modification. Patrick Jacobs’s diminutive, meticulous dioramas of lichen, fungi, mold and weeds, such as “Weed Study” (2017), are made from styrene, acrylic, neoprene and polyurethane foam; intended to be viewed through peepholes, they are inspired by Hudson River School of paintings and. T. J. Wilcox’s white cottony clouds in an azure sky captivate from lenticular prints.
Among those artists working with more organic materials are Maya Lin, whose “Pin River — Hudson” (2009) creates aerial views of rivers and waterways with steel pins and recycled silver. It is part of her series What Is Missing, which seeks to raise awareness of vanishing species. Jennifer Trask uses animal bones, antlers, and sewing needles to create delicate flowers.
Curator Ramljak reminds us that 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas with little direct access to nature, and spend more than 90% of their lives indoors. Visits to national parks are on the decline, and Nature Deficit Disorder is a real thing.
Newly awakened to nature by the exhibition, you set off on the Brandywine’s bucolic five miles of trail, your senses seeking connection with all that the artists have shown. “The primary goal of the exhibition [is] to make the familiar wondrous again,” says Ramljak in the museum’s magazine, Catalyst, “as if we are seeing nature for the very first time.”
Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art, curated by Suzanne Ramljak, continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) through October 21.