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Chester County Press

New ways of experiencing nature at the Brandywine

06/22/2018 10:12AM ● By J. Chambless

Diana Thater's video wall, 'Road to Hana Two.'

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Nature has been a constant source of inspiration for artists, and some of the finest landscape artists in the world are represented in the collection of the Brandywine River Museum of Art. For the exhibition that's opening this weekend, however, the Brandywine looks at nature in a whole new way. “Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art” is a sleek, dazzling, fascinating show that unites works by 13 American artists.

You notice that something's different about this show before you even enter the third-floor gallery. Spanning the museum's atrium is Kathleen Vance's “Brandywine River,” a commissioned work that miniaturizes a five-mile stretch of the river, complete with flowing water. Viewed against the real Brandywine River that's just outside the museum, it's a compelling inside-outside experience.

Stepping into the gallery, you find Suzanne Anker's “Remote Sensing: Micro-Landscapes,” a grouping of 24 Petri dishes containing miniature landscapes of varying pastel hues, each one suggesting a mountain range or coral reef, but confined for scientific study or preservation.

Jennifer Trask's bone and antler sculptures have a thousand variations of white and ivory. Her “Landscape” is a tangle of bone fragments and resin. Her “Queen Anne's Lace” is as delicate as a breeze, with blooms made of python and rattlesnake ribs, and stems made of curled sewing needles.

Maya Lin's “Bay, Pond and Harbor (Long Island Triptych)” is a three-piece rendering of bodies of water made of recycled silver. The empty space of the gallery wall serves as the land mass. Lin's nearby “Pin River-Hudson” renders the shape of the Hudson River with thousands of pins placed into the wall as a delicate symphony of shadows.

Kathleen Vance's “Traveling Landscape” sculptures are miniature vistas contained in old suitcases. They are propped open and lighted, and pumps move water through the riverbeds. You can bend down and peer into the magical spaces, which hint at both the preservation and the ownership of the land.

Sit for a moment and share the quiet wonder of Mark Tribe's 4K digital video, “Balsam Lake Mountain Wild Forest, Ulster County, NY.” It shows a small stream flowing through the woods, with ambient sounds of the trickling water and surrounding forest playing on speakers. The video is 24 hours long and captures just what happens at that spot in the unspoiled forest. Water trickles, butterflies come and go, a bird darts here and there. It is synchronized to the minute, so whatever time of day or night you come upon it, the time is the same in the video.

Elsewhere, Diana Thater's video, “Road to Hana Two,” is shown on nine aligned monitors. It shows a spot on Maui with vibrant rainbow eucalyptus blooms, but each monitor's video feed is subtly altered by Thater, alternately scratchy, overlapped, seemingly 3-D or otherwise altering our perception of the static scene.

While Thater's piece wraps around you, the four tiny, round windows that open onto Patrick Jacobs' miniature worlds ask you to come up and peek inside the portholes, some only a couple of inches wide. Inside are startlingly realistic vistas that suggest acres of landscape. Each twig and leaf has been sculpted by Jacobs, putting weeds and molds front and center in starring roles. They are mesmerizing and magical.

But that magic is also echoed in Dustin Yellin's glass sculptures. The glass blocks contain three-dimensional scenes that are made, layer by tiny layer, by painting on glass and overlapping. You need to get very close to see the brush strokes that make up these otherworldly places. But if you view them from the side, they disappear. “Cambodian Grass Cave” looks like it's six feet thick, and “Black Mirror” has two waterfalls mirroring each other, with tiny human figures tucked into the cliffs on either side.

Elsewhere, the six seemingly straightforward black-and-white photos of plant life are, in fact, fanciful creations that are vaguely otherworldly and constructed from computer-generated models which are then photographed.

Other highlights include Lauren Fensterstock's “Kiku,” a regimented forest of Japanese mums that have been bred to stand straight up and produce a single, large bloom. Done in black, the flowers are stripped of what makes them “useful” to human beings, who have bred them to bloom in unnatural ways in the first place.

And you'll want to spend some time walking back and forth in front of the four views of clouds in blue skies by T.J. Wilcox. The clouds shift and move as you walk past them, bringing a corner of sunny reverie into the gallery space.

“Natural Wonders” is a big step into art that doesn't hang in a frame, and the museum deserves applause for breaking out of its borders. Each of these works makes subtle points about open space and our strained relationship with the natural world, while also celebrating its beauty and magic. Don't miss your chance to see this cutting-edge artwork.

“Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art” continues through Oct. 21 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford). Visit or call 610-388-2700.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].