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(Un)Natural: Constructed Environments

September 23, 2023 – January 14, 2024
Jan van Kessel I
Jan van Kessel I (attributed), Flemish, Creation of the Birds and Fishes, c. 1650. Oil on copper, 9 3/4 x 7 inches (24.8 x 17.8 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Gift in honor of Marilyn M. Segal by her children, 1998.22.5. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

Artistic representations of nature are never neutral. From our oldest societies, humans have projected meaning onto the landscapes, plants and animals around them. This installation examines the different ways humans contend with the natural world through objects created in contexts spanning the Nasher Museum’s collections.

The works in this gallery are arranged in four thematic clusters. Some of the oldest objects—a medieval capital, a book of hours, a Greek vase and a 19th-century French painting—explore the ambiguous position of humans living outside the boundaries of society: as both models of morality and sources of suspicion. A second cluster includes two West African headpieces, a colonial Latin American scroll and a 16th-century print that embody humanity’s struggle to cope with the uncertainties of nature.

Prints by Piranesi and Aegedius Sadeler as well as a page from a fictional atlas created by Romanian artist Ion Bitzan reveal how artists impose their own beliefs and philosophies onto represented landscapes. The final grouping of works by John James Audubon, Jan van Kessel I and contemporary South African artist, Ravelle Pillay, examines artistic creation as a means of exerting control over the natural landscape, especially in contexts of colonization.

(Un)Natural: Constructed Environments is the curatorial debut for Associate Curator Katherine Werwie, who arrived at the Nasher Museum in June 2023.

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