Brandywine River Museum presents ‘Fragile Earth’ exhibition

James Prosek (b. 1975), Invisible Boundaries, 2022, digital print on polyester scrim vinyl, 16′ x 27′. Courtesy of the artist and Waqas Wajahat, NY

Coming to the Brandywine River Museum of Art this fall, Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art will highlight the diverse approaches taken by four of the leading contemporary American artists whose work engages with environmental themes. The ecologically concerned artists featured in the exhibition include Jennifer Angus, Mark Dion, Courtney Mattison and James Prosek. On view September 24, 2022 through January 8, 2023, the Brandywine’s presentation of Fragile Earth will also include a site-specific installation by Angus and a commissioned mural by Prosek that explores the plants and animals native to the Brandywine Valley.

Fragile Earth will include two galleries of striking works reflecting on the vulnerability of the environment, created in a variety of media by Angus, Dion, Mattison and Prosek. “These artists were selected for the profound message their works convey about environmental conservation,” said Jennifer Stettler Parson’s, the exhibition’s curator. “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.”

Artist and professor Jennifer Angus will stage an immersive installation in the Brandywine’s Strawbridge Family Gallery, activating the intimate space with elaborate displays of preserved insects. Pinning brilliantly colored insects to the walls in ornamental patterns, Angus creates surprising beauty, while also reinforcing their importance to the ecosystem. For the Brandywine’s presentation of Fragile Earth, Angus will adapt a wallpaper design she discovered in the former children’s bedrooms of Andrew Wyeth’s studio—a National Historic Landmark owned and operated by the Museum—paying homage to the institution’s history and sense of place. Angus redesigned the wallpaper, inserting illustrations to reference N. C. Wyeth’s career. She will also create a signature “insect wallpaper,” creating a pattern of clear wing cicadas pinned to the wall. Her reconceptualization of traditional cabinets of curiosity into intricate and empathetic experiences make her a much sought-after artist. Installations of her work have appeared at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Shelburne Museum and the Hudson River Museum.

Conceptual artist Mark Dion is known internationally for assemblages that critique treatment of the environment and the way naturalists have traditionally studied, classified and preserved natural specimens. His commissions include a permanent installation at the Olympic Sculpture Park for the Seattle Art Museum, and he recently completed a residency at the La Brea Tar Pits—part of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles. Among the works on view, his New England Cabinet of Marine Debris (Lyme Art Colony) (2019) will feature discarded items collected along the New England shoreline arranged in the fashion of Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosity. Dion also created new works for this presentation of Fragile Earth, including a sculpture called Still Life in Black in White(2022), which alludes to the threat that oil spills pose to penguins, as well as a study for a proposed ranger station—a nod to the educational work of the Brandywine Conservancy.

Sculptor and ocean advocate Courtney Mattison will display her monumental, intricately detailed ceramic wall reliefs that replicate the beauty of coral reefs at the same time referencing their vulnerability. Mattison’s advanced degrees in environmental science and ceramic sculpture have led to interdisciplinary commissions for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and National Geographic. Her works have been featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Diego, where she was artist-in-residence, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, and Wave Hill in the Bronx. On view at Brandywine will be her flagship Our Changing Seas III (2014) installation, as well as newer works like Surface Tension II (2020) and the beautiful, swirling Gyre I (2022). Mattison’s message is one of caution but also one of hope for the regeneration of natural environments, using her entrancing sculptures to inspire action.

Described as a contemporary John James Audubon, James Prosek is an artist and naturalist who considers how we engage nature both scientifically and artistically. Solo exhibitions at Yale University Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the North Carolina Museum of Art, as well as exhibitions at the Royal Academy, London, the U.S. Embassies of Afghanistan and Nigeria, and Asia Society Hong Kong Center have brought him both national and international attention. Commissioned by Brandywine, Prosek will create one of his signature hand-painted, silhouette-style murals on site, highlighting the flora and fauna of the Brandywine Valley. On a visit to the area, Prosek caught a red-breasted sunfish in a stream running through the Brandywine Conservancy’s Laurels Preserve in Chester County, PA, inspiring a new watercolor, which will be included in the exhibition. Also on view, Prosek’s largest outdoor installation to date—a variation on a 2021 painting which is hanging in the gallery—graces the façade of the Museum. Titled Invisible Boundaries, both works consider the symbolism of the U.S. flag in relation to nature. Incorporating 50 images of state animals and the bald eagle, Invisible Boundaries illustrates the fact that animals inhabit ecosystems independent of geographic boundaries between states or countries.

“Within the scope of contemporary art in America is a group of artists creating fascinating bodies of work that reference an abiding concern for nature. Jennifer Angus, Mark Dion, Courtney Mattison and James Prosek are at the forefront of this group, and their work constitutes a visually compelling, deeply personal response to nature today. Visitors to Fragile Earth will be immersed in beauty and be part of a very timely conversation around stressors on the world’s ecosystem,” said Thomas Padon, the James H. Duff Director of the Brandywine River Museum of Art. This exhibition builds on the success of the Brandywine’s 2018 exhibition, Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art, which displayed the work of 13 artists who likewise investigated humanity’s relationship with the environment. “Given the Brandywine’s unique status within the United States as an organization that joins together an art museum and a land trust, Fragile Earth will have particular resonance here,” Padon added.

Organized by the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, and curated by its Associate Curator, Jennifer Stettler Parsons, Ph.D., Fragile Earth is accompanied by a catalogue featuring extensive photography of the artists’ 2019 installations at the Florence Griswold Museum. The catalogue includes essays and written dialogues by Parsons, the participating artists, as well as renowned environmental scientist, the Honorable Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D.

The Brandywine River Museum of Art is the ultimate venue for this exhibition, which previously debuted at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut in 2019. Working with Parsons and the four artists, Amanda Burdan, Senior Curator at Brandywine, updated the exhibition to incorporate works made by the artists in the interim. Over 40% of the works on view are new to this iteration of the exhibition.

About the Artists:

Canadian-born artist Jennifer Angus travels the world mentoring students and gathering inspiration for her ecologically safe installations of preserved insects, which bring attention to the creatures’ role in the environment, their habitats, and the human role in deforestation, agriculture and urbanization. As professor of Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Angus has received annual grants from the Graduate School, as well as a Vilas Associate Award, the Emily Mead Baldwin-Bascom Professorship in the Creative Arts, and a Romnes Fellowship. She has exhibited at such venues as the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery; MadArt, Seattle; the Museum of Art and Design, NY; the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum; and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Internationally her work has been seen in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico and Spain. Her exhibition, A Terrible Beauty, at the Textile Museum of Canada was selected as “Exhibition of the Year” by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries in 2006. She received her education at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (BFA) and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA).

Internationally recognized artist Mark Dion examines the ways in which public institutions construct our understanding of history, knowledge and the natural world. His assemblages use scientific methods of collecting, ordering and exhibiting objects to offer commentary and critique on the human treatment of the environment. Dion has had major exhibitions at the ICA, Boston; the Miami Art Museum; the Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, CT; and at the Tate Gallery and the British Museum of Natural History, London. His numerous awards include the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award, The Joan Mitchell Foundation Award and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Lucida Art Award. He has produced numerous public projects and large-scale commissions, including for Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany; the Montevideo Biennial in Uruguay; The Rose Art Museum; Johns Hopkins University; the Port of Los Angeles; and most recently for Tulsa’s Riverfront Park, “Gathering Place.” Born in New Bedford, MA, Dion holds a BFA and honorary doctorate from Hartford Art School, CT. He also attended the School of Visual Arts, NY, and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program. He is an Honorary Fellow of Falmouth University in the UK and has an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (Ph.D.) from The Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia. Based in New York, Dion is also a prolific author.

Artist and ocean advocate Courtney Mattison handcrafts intricate, large-scale ceramic sculptural works inspired by the beauty of marine ecosystems—particularly coral reefs—and the human-caused threats they face. Her installations have been commissioned for the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies; the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center; the Coral Triangle Center, Bali, Indonesia; and private patrons. Mattison’s work has been exhibited at prominent venues including the U.S. Department of Commerce & NOAA headquarters; the Whatcom Museum; the American Museum of Ceramic Art; the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); and the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. Based in Los Angeles, Mattison was born in San Francisco, CA. She received an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree in marine ecology and ceramic sculpture from Skidmore College, and a Master of Arts degree in environmental studies from Brown University, with coursework at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Connecticut-based artist, writer, naturalist and Yale graduate James Prosek is the author of more than 13 books on art and nature, including Eels (Harper Perennial). Drawing inspiration from artist-naturalists of the 19th century, his paintings creatively reimagine documentary imagery of American flora and fauna, commenting on the interconnectedness of our ecosystem. Prosek’s work has been shown at such venues as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with solo exhibitions at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the New Britain Museum of American Art; the Buffalo Bill Center of the West; the North Carolina Museum of Art; and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., among others. He has held numerous artist residencies, including at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. Prosek has written for The New York Times and National Geographic Magazine and won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton—the 17th-century author of The Compleat Angler.

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