SALEM — “Nature’s Nation: Art and the Environment,” just opened at the Peabody Essex Museum, suggests, by title at least, a tree-huggerish agenda. There’s that, yes, but so much more. In the entry, a giant, inflatable yellow eyeball, made by the transnational artists’ collective PostCommodity, is tethered to the gallery floor; it’s one of 26 strung along a 2-mile line across the US-Mexico border in 2015, 13 on each side, a hundred feet in the air. With all the talk of borders and walls these days, it arrives right on time. Divisions are arbitrary, it seems to say, often cruelly so, and ultimately fleeting. Land, though, is forever. (The show is not: It closes May 5.)
That dichotomy inflects much of what comes next, a through-line that connects the exhibition’s dozen or so chapters, though some better than others. You can’t talk about the environment, or land, without talking about to whom it belongs, or who belongs on it; in North America, that’s ever been a fraught conversation, and one from which PEM doesn’t shy. That outsize balloon is followed by a tiny basalt sculpture of a bear, made by an indigenous artist whose name is lost to the centuries, before European colonials took root. And so our story begins.
The show, hatched by the Princeton University Museum of Art last year, offered in its original form a more clear-cut environmental slant. At PEM, “environmental” is a much more expansive term. Its canny inclusions — the museum has added a dozen works from its own collection to the display here, the bear among them — tilt the show toward the complexities of cultural history, contemporary politics, and the inevitably bloody disconnects that an identity tied to contested land begets.
The PEM display has currency with an evolving sensitivity as to what American art actually is. Both Karen Kramer, the museum’s curator of Native American and oceanic art, and its curator of American art, Austen Barron Bailly, are the show’s joint stewards here, which says much about the institution’s own ideas on the subject. The show may not have been made by PEM, but PEM, in this instalment, feels made for it.
A section on portraiture — upright, mannered depictions of Victorian ladies in parlors, the vast wilderness looming just outside — carry the weight of dominance, a wild now tamed; nearby, an Inuit family portrait carved into a walrus tusk from the same era suggests two worlds overlapping the same space, a universe apart. Nearby, “The Artist in His Museum,” from 1822, a towering, imperious self-portrait by Charles Willson Peale, shows him lifting a velvet curtain to reveal his storehouse of objects, static and airless — taxidermied creatures, dried plant samples — sequestered in glass vitrines. To reach it, you need to pass by Tlingit artist Nicholas Galinan’s “Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care), Parts I and II,” a rough and flinty 2006 video piece of dancers in hectic motion, both hip-hop and Tlingit, in full ceremonial dress. It, like the bear, is a PEM add-on, and the implication seems clear: Dead, meet living. Peale, I’m sure, has never looked quite so old.
The show’s power lies in such moments, with counterpoints that debunk one of the most insidious of national fables. An array of landscapes here — Thomas Cole’s “Home in the Woods,” from 1847, a scene of contented pioneers homesteading beside a glimmering pond or Asher B. Durand’s “Landscape,” 1859, a wedge of forest flooded with golden light — mythologize the American wilderness as ruggedly beautiful, untamed and for the most part unpeopled, but for the rugged pioneers that had found it that way. That last one matters most. A country whose identity was built on the gobsmacking notion of divine right — Manifest Destiny, God’s own decree to take what was needed from whomever might have it — looms large in the formation of the American myth, not least as absolution for the gamut of colonial sins.
Where artists like Cole had no trouble with such justifications in their heroic views of the land — his disturbingly-titled “The Course of Empire: The Arcadian Pastoral State,” from 1834, in which a fortress is dwarfed by a lush, unspoiled valley, seems to say as much — Albert Bierstadt takes his rightful place as the true villain of the piece here. His heroic mountainscapes, typically bathed in beatific light, are always achingly pristine — there, it seems, for the taking. But in “Mount Adams, Washington,” 1875, a small group of Native Americans rests low in the foreground, peacefully gathering their things to make way for the new arrivals.
It’s an unusual work — Bierstadt’s heroic landscapes were typically unpeopled — chosen to reveal the artist as the Manifest Destiny propagandist he was. Later on, it becomes more plain. “The Last of the Buffalo,” 1891, a small Bierstadt illustration, shows a Native American hunter astride a horse amid thousands of massacred buffalo — a finger pointed squarely at indigenous people for the beast’s near extinction.
Never mind, I suppose, the robustly proliferate herds that roamed here for millennia before European arrival, or the colonist’s widespread practice of shooting buffalo from train windows by the thousands, for sport; Bierstadt’s view — that they did it to themselves — became an effective piece of misdirection that endured for decades. And so the artist rightly takes his lumps: Alongside “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite,” his majestic scene of soaring pines and tumbling waters from 1871, hangs Valerie Hegarty’s “Fallen Bierstadt,” a fire-ravaged version of the same from 2007, dangling askew with scraps piled on the floor below. Next to it, another view: Cree painter Kent Monkman’s gleeful “The Fourth World,” from 2012, an acidic satire of the Bierstadtian pretense of purity, complete with Richard Serra’s curving steel forms diverting a herd of buffalo.
The show lives most in moments like these, deepening the offering with views into the land’s inevitably-contested nature, and right from the nation’s very beginnings. If we take colonization as modernity’s original sin (and it is), what flows from it — industrialization, urbanization, race and class division, social and ecological devastation and decay — is all of a piece.
That said, “Nature’s Nation” doesn’t connect the dots as clearly as it might. A section devoted to the buffalo seems tangential, though it does lay bare the Bierstadt lie; another, loosely called “Ethics,” contemplates art as a despoiler of nature itself, with its reliance on toxic materials (though it seems mostly an excuse to install a spectacular Morris Louis painting, the artist having used turpentine, an environmental arch-villain, to thin the paints to create his signature pale pigments).
“Cities,” another chapter, gives us Aaron Douglas’s stunning “Song of the Towers,” from 1966, a searing piece crackling with the racial inequities of the old South, alive and well in the cities of the North, though as a chapter, it’s otherwise thin; a section on the Depression-era Dust Bowl serves up the unwieldy, rigid beauty of Alexandre Hogue’s “Crucified Land,” from 1929, its jagged ochre ridges stacked like rotting teeth. Subhankar Banerjee’s towering aerial photograph of caribou traversing melting pack ice in Alaska, from 2002, comes preloaded with eco-politics: Installed in the Smithsonian in 2003, it became a rallying point for Democrats opposed to oil drilling there — proof of life. Republicans, in power at the time and keen on opening more drilling territory, decreed Bannerjee’s entire exhibition be removed from the show’s main gallery and re-installed on the lower level, with captions edited or removed (the Smithsonian has always denied political pressure played a part in the decision).
Fiery, sure, though much of this material feels like obligatory padding for the final word, which PEM has saved for itself. As you reach the end, a video comes into view: hundreds of mirrors shimmering and held aloft, flowing in a makeshift river of light. It’s a piece by Cannupa Hanska Luger, another PEM addition. It was made at Standing Rock, where the standoff between the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Sioux reservation that opposed it reached its climax in early 2017. Here, though, there is no flashpoint. Instead, it’s a poetic moment, dozens of people silently coalescing in a poetic gesture of unity. It will take all that and more to repair all the damage done to the environment, however you choose to define it.
NATURE’S NATION: AMERICAN ART AND THE ENVIRONMENT
At the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through May 5. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org