Natural Wonders: Sublime Artifice in Contemporary Art

Exhibition Website

Jun 23 2018 - Oct 21 2018


Artists since antiquity have depicted, and often mimicked, the splendors of nature. Throughout the centuries, such representations have embodied the shifting relationship between humans and their natural surroundings. Nature has thus proved to be a fertile terrain for projecting a culture’s desires, fears, whimsy, or will. Artists in the twenty-first century have continued this cultural dialogue with nature, bringing their distinct concerns and creative vision to the subject.

The exhibition, Natural Wonders: Sublime Artifice in Contemporary Art, showcases a dozen major American artists who engage nature in all its fierce glory. Beyond just highlighting nature’s beauty, the featured artists—including Suzanne Anker, Lauren Fensterstock, Patrick Jacobs, Maya Lin, Roxy Paine, Jennifer Trask, Mark Tribe, Kathleen Vance, and Dustin Yellin—also hint at the more disquieting aspects of the natural world. As such, the works in this exhibition can be viewed as a type of neo-sublime, mixing the beautiful and terrifying to produce awe in the beholder in accord with tenets of eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke. And like nineteenth-century sublime landscapes of the Hudson River School or the Romantic era, these recent works conjure the raw power and unruliness of nature along with its majesty—a state at once captivating and unsettling. Indeed, a menace can be found lurking within most of the work in Natural Wonders, and this danger often stems from human intervention. 

The supreme artifice performed by the artists in this exhibition serves as a cunning means to serious ends. These works harbor pressing concerns beneath their alluring surfaces, and the exhibition's selection will raise a number of issues involving our relationship with the natural world, including species extinction, over cultivation of wilderness, GMOs, and designer breeding. Many of the artists are also interested in exploring the increasingly fine line between the natural and artificial realms, between the wild and cultivated. Some further engage sophisticated technologies and techniques—including 3D printing, lenticular screens, and 4K digital cinema—in order to capture and convey nature’s formidable powers.

In borrowing the aesthetics of nature, the artists in Natural Wonders reveal a keen understanding and regard for nature’s own designs and processes. Staging seductive encounters with natural phenomena, the works in the exhibition will entice viewers to examine prevailing notions and practices concerning our involvement with nature. These sublime evocations are at once a tribute and a warning, putting us on high alert for both the wonders and dangers lurking beneath nature’s sumptuous façade.

Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website 
Image: Patrick Jacobs,  2017, Styrene, acrylic, cast neoprene, paper, polyurethane foam, ash, talc, starch, acrylic, vinyl film, wood, steel, lighting, BK7 glass. Diorama viewed through 2 3/4 inch window. Interior box; 14 3/4 x 11 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches.
  • Various Media
  • American
  • Contemporary
  • Animals / Wildlife / Nature
  • Jennifer Trask
  • Dustin Yellin
  • Maya Lin
  • Roxy Paine
  • Lauren Fensterstock
  • Suzanne Anker
  • and others

Exhibition Venues & Dates