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Chester County Press

New exhibit reflects on climate’s vulnerability

10/04/2022 03:44PM ● By Richard Gaw

 Photo courtesy of Brandywine River Museum of Art        Contemporary artist Courtney Madison stands before her exhibit, “Our Changing Seas,” which is included as part of “Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art,” now being shown at the Brandywine River Museum of Art through Jan. 8, 2023.


By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Throughout its rich history, the Brandywine River Museum of Art has often served as a cultural touchstone to the world that exists beyond southeastern Pennsylvania, a world that is often viewed as hanging in the delicate balance of environmental chaos.

In its 2018 exhibition entitled, “Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art,” it featured the work of 13 artists who investigated the relationship between human beings and the Earth’s climate. The museum’s latest exhibition, “Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art” -- on view through Jan. 8, 2023 – showcases the same ecological theme through the work of four leading contemporary artists: Jennifer Angus, Mark Dion, Courtney Mattison and James Prosek.

Spanning two separate galleries, “Fragile Earth” provides an artistic narrative that reflects on environmental concerns that range from ocean bleaching to endangered species to the accumulation of debris and disasters that continue to threaten our shorelines.

“This is such an important exhibition to showcase the two halves of our house – the fine arts house and our environmental house,” said Brandywine’s Senior Curator Amada C. Burdan said at an event to open the exhibit last week. “This exhibit expresses our concerns about preserving and sustaining the environment, and not just expressing our melancholy over it, but actively doing things to improve our local environment.”

“These artists were selected for the profound message their works convey about environmental conservation,” said Jennifer Stettler Parsons, the exhibition’s curator, who had been working with the Brandywine for the past three years in preparation for the exhibit. “They transform natural and non-traditional materials, like insects and found debris, into art in order to make visible the human role in global climate change, and to reveal how our daily choices may endanger our planet’s future.” 

In her work in the Brandywine’s Strawbridge Family Gallery, Angus has pinned brilliantly colored insects to the walls in ornamental patterns while also reinforcing their importance to the ecosystem. Incorporating a local angle, Angus has also adapted a wallpaper design she discovered in the former children’s bedrooms of Andrew Wyeth’s studio.

Known internationally for assemblages that critique treatment of the environment and the way naturalists have traditionally studied, classified and preserved natural specimens, Dion’s entries in the exhibition do much the same. One of his artworks, “Still Life in Black in White,” alludes to the threat that oil spills pose to penguins.

Mattison, a sculptor, has become known for her wall reliefs that replicate the beauty of coral reefs at the same time referencing their vulnerability. At Brandywine, she showcases “Our Changing Seas III” installation, as well as newer works like “Surface Tension II” and “Gyre I.” 

Described as a contemporary John James Audubon, Prosek’s most prominent entry in the exhibit hangs at the entrance to the Brandywine. Entitled “Invisible Boundaries,” it combines the symbolism of the U.S. flag in relation to nature. Incorporating 50 images of state animals and the bald eagle, the display illustrates the fact that animals inhabit ecosystems independent of geographic boundaries between states or countries. 

“All of these artists are really inspired by history as well as fantasy, but especially the historic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries when artists were interested in the scientific aspect of categorizing and surveying nature,” Parsons said. “A lot has changed from those centuries, and unfortunately when artists look to nature today, they are seeing the peril that the environment is now under due to climate change and global warming.

“The good news is that one of the reasons we chose these artists is because it is not all melancholy. They all have a message of hope and optimism that they bring, and when you encounter these works, what I hope [visitors will see] is not only inspiration from their beauty but also their message – that there is time for the environment to heal, if we act quickly.”

The Brandywine River Museum of Art is located at 1 Hoffman's Mill Road in Chadds Ford. To learn more about “Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art,” visit www.brandywine.org. or call 610-388-2700.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected]