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Brandywine River Museum’s new exhibit finds scary beauty in the realm of decay

In Brandywine Museum's "Natural Wonders," Maya Lin and 12 other contemporary artists update the idea of the sublime.

Detail from Patrick Jacobs' "Pink Forest" (2015), from "Natural Wonders" at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.
Detail from Patrick Jacobs' "Pink Forest" (2015), from "Natural Wonders" at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.Read moreCourtesy of Brandywine River Museum of Art

Not long ago, I found in my refrigerator a jar of partly used harissa. When I opened it, I saw what seemed to be an uncanny landscape. The condiment had been colonized by multiple molds that looked like green-and-white ridges across the red ground. It disgusted and embarrassed me. But it was, in its way, wondrous.

This combination of beauty and horror, the apprehension that the world is stranger, scarier, and more miraculous than we can imagine, is often called the sublime. It is the subject of "Natural Wonders: the Sublime in Contemporary Art," an ambitious and innovative group exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art through Oct. 21.

It is an oddly romantic show that finds disquieting beauty in molds, fungi, and more broadly, the processes of life, death, and recycling that permeate the natural world.

Jennifer Trask uses rattlesnake and python ribs and nails to make a bouquet of Queen Anne's lace. Maya Lin casts the water in a Long Island bay, pond, and harbor as spills of shining silver. Lauren Fensterstock uses shells, resin, and rubber to make stalactites and stalagmites, and paper to make a dense head-high bed of black Japanese chrysanthemums.

It would be equally appropriate to call the show "Unnatural Wonders," because many of the 13 artists represented here use 3-D printing and other 21st-century technology to evoke the natural. Some even feel free to invent plants and places that don't actually exist.

The show, organized by guest curator Suzanne Ramljak, seeks to highlight a tendency rather than expound a theory. She has brought together a number of artists who are fascinated both by the natural world and by the science and technology that enable us to understand and model it — and also to change it.

At their best, they produce works of queasy awesomeness, some of which straddle the fine line between slime and the sublime.

That is particularly true of the first artist in the show, Suzanne Anker. She uses the term "micro-landscapes" for the 24 works in petri dishes that make up the work Remote Sensing, and these poisonously green, orange and fuchsia objects do look a bit like small models of places you have never been.

What they are, though, is closer to what I found in my refrigerator. They are full-scale models based on photographs of decaying organic matter.

Emphasis on the toxic

Some of the artists in the show portray organic decay in an almost spiritual way, as part of a natural process of recycling and regeneration. Anker's emphasis, though, is on the toxic.

The colors and shapes are seductive, and possibly accurate, but they feel unnatural and dangerous. Anker makes these works with a 3-D printer, which can faithfully reproduce the visual complexity of the decaying matter, even as it transforms its substance from something messy and ever-changing to something permanent, and, well, remote.

The work is at once anti-technological and a demonstration of the imaginative possibilities technology offers.

"The sublime" is an elusive idea, one that the exhibition does not really attempt to define. The strongest works in the show suggest that the sublime is something we only occasionally glimpse. It is a fleeting moment of connection when we leave our everyday world and feel part of some larger realm.

Nowadays, of course, humans are influencing everything that happens on the earth, an idea that suffuses the show.

You glimpse Patrick Jacobs' exquisite tiny dioramas through glass portholes in the gallery wall. Like Anker, he evokes nature with mostly unnatural materials. Pink Forest, for example lists styrene, acrylic, cast neoprene, paper, hair, polyurethane foam, acrylic, vinyl film, and steel among its materials.

But when you look at this painstakingly handmade piece, you see an impossibly romantic landscape that hints at the possibility of spiritual transcendence.

Even when he depicts more mundane subjects, as in Weed Study and White Puffballs with Orange Slime Mold and Lichen, Jacobs' smaller-than-life works almost shimmer with life. In these, he demands that the viewer take a close look at things that, in many people's eyes, ruin a beautiful lawn or lovely garden.

According to the catalog, Jacobs gets his weed imagery not from close observation of the natural world, but from pest-control and herbicide guides. From these pictures of purported enemies, Jacobs derives intensely emotional landscapes.

For me, the show reaches its peak of sublimity in the work of Dustin Yellin, who creates convincing unreal worlds by painting on multiple layers of glass. The works appear to be three-dimensional caves or landscapes trapped inside a block of glass.

Iridescent and rocky, they stand in the gallery like little alternate universes from a science fiction story. But if you view them from the side, all you see are the seams where the glass is laminated.

This other world is perhaps only a dreamscape. But it draws the viewer into a meditation on what's solid, what's illusory, and how little humans matter in the expanse of geologic time.

Kathleen Vance, like all the other artists I have mentioned, creates works that are containers for nature. In the series of works called Traveling Landscapes she literally puts river valleys, forests, and flowing streams into old, much-used steamer trunks and suitcases. Her techniques, though, are less obviously sophisticated than the others, almost what you might find in a model train layout.

Yet their seeming lack of sophistication is probably what makes them so touching. They speak of the illusion of containing nature, and of the folly that nature is something we can possess. A fountain in a suitcase is miraculous, but also ridiculous. Our desires are real, but self-defeating.

Vance has also done a major new piece for this show: a 35-foot-long model of a four-mile segment of the Brandywine River. It stands outside the exhibition, near a window from which you can see the real river.

It is a crowd-pleaser, and a worthwhile work to be shown by a museum that is part of a conservancy to preserve the Brandywine landscape. But it fails in comparison to Vance's Traveling Landscapes, and that's instructive. It lacks the frisson of horror and delight that makes a work sublime.