Human Nature is an online exhibition of contemporary artwork exploring human nature through nature. Please visit the exhibition here.
Nature holds endless expressive possibilities. It can be a mirror for humanity or the negation of society, an ideal paradise or symbolic of a dark time replete of progress and innovation. 2005 census data revealed that 81% of Americans live in either urban or suburban areas¹. Despite and perhaps because of this separation, nature remains fascinating for artists and viewers. As less people are able to experience nature in the traditional sense, the signifying capacity of flora and fauna evolves. For many, nature is something to imagine rather than to observe directly.
The tradition of depicting a human figure within a landscape has had many iterations throughout art history. During the Renaissance, wealthy patrons commissioned portraits in front of their land to emphasize social status. Mythic concepts contextualized nudity, and paintings of bathers often explored a (potentially problematic) equation of the female nude with nature. There is also a rich history of representing outdoor activities including picnics and hunts.
During the Romantic age, nature became more than a backdrop or context for the figure, and started to communicate abstract ideas. Artists such as Caspar David Friedrich used nature as a mode of conveying the sublime, and contemplating humanity by locating figures within the infinite vastness of nature. These pictures revealed both the finiteness of the figure, as well as the expansive quality of spirituality and humanity's potential. Imagination and invention became as important as observation, as artists purposely composed natural forms.
With the move towards abstraction in the early 20th century, artists began further altering both the figure and nature to communicate ideas. Henri Matisse's The Joy of Life (1905-6) was a crucial work in this development. The playful use of color, freed from the line and representational obligation, is crucial to his project of elevating humanity to a higher spiritual plane of freedom and beauty.
Each of the artists in this exhibition uses nature to express ideas about aspects of humanity. To varying degrees, each piece identifies an element of animality or creaturehood in the human experience, and explores what this means for people in terms of relating to others and their surroundings. The artists capitalize cultural constructions of nature and animals. Noel Madison-Fetting-Smith as Billy the Bison wears bright face paint, becoming a storybook-type-bison (as opposed to a more naturalistic portrayal of wild bison habits) to engage people in a dialogue about his work. Lisa Yuskavage employs ideas about tourism to consider sexuality, both enacting and negating the association of the female with nature. Naomi Fisher and Galen Broderick consider the dynamics of groups and rituals; Fisher dresses the members of "Camp Primitivo" in animal print Versace, while Galen Broderick outfits his tribe in identically pant-less grass cloaks. Harper Hair and Allison Schulnik invent anatomies that speak to individuality, as well as the need for connection to others and to an environment. These works all use nature to describe the human experience of shared biology and yet unique agency.
I find that each of these works maintains a sense of humor, while at the same time making a profound statement about human life. The descriptions are my own, and may or may not accurately reflect the intentions of the artists. I invite all visitors to consider the questions that the pieces raise, and to comment with any and all observations!
Although this exhibition would ideally occur in real space, the online format presented an exciting opportunity to curate the work of established and emerging artists into one exhibition. I chose the blog format hoping to begin a dialogue around the work, and encourage the visitors to supplement my descriptions with their own comments. Future visitors to the site will encounter not only my own curatorial voice, but the ideas of previous visitors as well. I advertised the exhibition with a facebook invitation.