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“Nature’s Nation,” the first art exhibit to analyze how American and Native American artists depict the environment over the last three centuries, opened on Feb. 2 at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). The exhibit features more than 300 major paintings, photographs, works on paper, and sculptures from artists, including Ansel Adams, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish-Kootenai).

“The exhibition underscores the power of artists and the art of influence that inspires us and helps us understand our relationship to nature and what it means to all of us,” said Karen Kramer, coordinating curator and PEM’s curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture.

The exhibition opens with a contemporary piece named “Repellent Fence/Valla Repelente” by Postcommodity, an indigenous artist collective. “In 2015, the collective installed 26 tethered balloons along a two-mile route crossing the United States-Mexico border. Each 10-feet wide and 50-feet high balloon looked out on the setting through its ‘Scare Eye,’ a graphic intended to repel wildlife from the property. From the Scare Eye, it sees land, communities and ecosystems connected as a unified whole, not divided by manmade borders,” said Kramer.

“One particular art piece that symbolizes what the exhibit thinks about the works of art is Thomas Moran’s 1893 painting of Yellowstone National Park. It captures the grandeur Yellowstone region but when we step down from closely appreciating the beauty of this extraordinary painting, we really have to ask the question: who’s not depicted in the painting and who’s evicted from the land when the park was established and what does it mean to appreciate the harmony between nature and us,” said Austen Barron Bailly, coordinating curator and PEM’s George Putnam curator of American art.

Nature’s Nation also places historical art pieces with contemporary responses. One example is Valerie Hegarty’s “Fallen Bierstadt,” which questions the way Alfred Bierstadt’s 1871-73 painting “Bridal Veil Falls” idealizes nature as an untouched wilderness. The scorched and crumbling version of the painting sends a message that nature is more vulnerable than we imagined.

– Valerie Sizhe Li

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