ANDOVER — What may be the single most arresting object in “A Wildness Distant From Ourselves” is not an artwork. It is strikingly beautiful, though. The show runs through July 31 at the Addison Gallery of American Art, on the campus of Phillips Academy.
The object is a bison skull. Eyes educated by the anything-goes aftermath of Modernism might appreciate the skull in strictly sculptural terms: the play of curve and void, the unmarred materiality of surface, the purity of whiteness. But aesthetic considerations are incidental. More relevant is that the skull was collected by none other than Buffalo Bill Cody . The nickname takes on a startling, and lethal, specificity.
The relentless destruction of the bison may have been the greatest ecological crime committed on the North American continent. Certainly, it was among the most deliberate, helping ensure the subjugation of the Plains Indians, whose lives in large part depended on hunting bison. Anyone doubting the magnificence of these creatures need only look at a nearby set of gridded photographic images, “Buffalo; Galloping,” from Eadweard Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion.”
A zoological specimen, an odd but telling historical fact, an unfamiliar work from a famous artist’s masterpiece: Such constellations of surprise and expectation make “A Wildness Distant” provocative and rewarding. The Addison’s Gordon Wilkins curated the exhibition, as well as “The Art of Ambition in the Colonial Northeast.”
There’s another plate from Muybridge’s book on display, showing a miner wielding a pick. Even as buffalo were being removed from the landscape of the West, other things were being extracted from its soil. The price of those extractions is evident in a magnificent Carleton Watkins mammoth-plate photograph of hydraulic mining in post-Gold Rush California. Another Watkins shows a redwood, in Yosemite. You can see how complicated all this can get.
The title of “A Wildness Distant” comes from Thoreau, than whom no one in our history has so illuminatingly straddled the divide (or is it?) between nature and culture. “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves,” he wrote. “There is none such.”
The quotation is in a wall text in the Addison’s vestibule. The exhibition, which includes some 160 items, flanks that space in the galleries to the right and left. Also in the vestibule is one of the Addison’s signature works, Saint-Gaudens’s bronze “The Puritan” and a 1732 map of English possessions in North America. The implication is clear. Although the show’s focus is the 19th century, what it presents — a view of nature owing both to exaltation and exploitation, splendor and degradation, the sacred and (very) profane — has its roots in European settlement.
The show renders those dualities through several of its own. “A Wildness Distant” boasts celebrated names: Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer. The show includes a copy of the elephant folio of Audubon’s “Birds of America,” the sheer physical presence of which is thrilling. Yet it also includes five taxidermy specimens of now-extinct birds. Their sheer physical presence has a very different effect — and perhaps even greater eloquence.
Those recognizable names share space with artworks by anonymous makers, a notable number of them Native Americans, as well as items of material culture. When was the last art exhibition you saw that included a beaver hat, let alone a metal-jawed animal trap?
Among the anonymous works is a painting from the second quarter of the 19th century. The indeterminacy of date underscores the general applicability of the title, “He that by the plough would thrive — Himself must either hold or drive.” A child feeds a lamb. Another milks a cow. A man plows a field behind a team of oxen. A farmhouse is visible to the right. Here is the Jeffersonian ideal, or idyll, of a nation of farmers. Except that the two trees framing what we see are stunted and dying; and a bonfire in the background that another man tends is an abrupt gash of orange, a kind of wound, beneath a pall of smoke.
If there is a complaint about so ambitious, imaginative, and excellently varied a show, it has to do with a certain bien-pensant reductiveness. In its assiduous avoidance of any hint of triumphalism, “Wildness” is very nearly as assiduous in castigation. This makes it very much of our cultural moment, with its indulgence in what one might call ex post facto reproach. Much of this historical recrimination is necessary and long overdue. Past a certain point, though, it becomes some weird blend of moral self-regard and impressive-sounding dodge of contemporary engagement. Too often, an indictment of the past (them) is a way to avoid indicting the present (us).
“The Art of Ambition in the Colonial Northeast,” which runs through Dec. 15, poses a question so simple that it’s endlessly complicated: “What is American about art produced before the founding of the United States”? One sign of the complicatedness is that several of the 30 works in the show come from the 19th century. Another is how varied those works are: from furniture to paintings to silverware to a bed rug and textile coat of arms.
It’s no surprise that even the best works look like lesser versions of English counterparts. Provinces, by definition, produce provincial work. A Gilbert Stuart portrait from the late 1780s looks very Gainsborough. Two works by Benjamin West, who left his native Pennsylvania for London, offer an interesting twist. “The Drummond Brothers,” an oil from 1767, looks very Reynolds. Yet “Hagar and Ishmael,” a drawing from 1780, could be a prefiguring (admittedly sedate) of William Blake.
How then to answer that initial question? Based on this very small sample size, there’s a consistent solidity and forthrightness and a quality, in what we would now call the high-end items, that’s not so much elegance as a somewhat sumptuous plainness. If there is a talismanic item in the show, it’s a carved wooden eagle, c. 1800: rude, unpolished, powerful, and, most important, spreading its wings.
A WILDNESS DISTANT FROM OURSELVES: Art and Ecology in 19th-Century America
THE ART OF AMBITION IN THE COLONIAL NORTHEAST
At Addison Gallery of American Art, 180 Main St., Andover, through July 31 and Dec. 15, respectively. 978-749-4000, addison.andover.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.