2019 Wisconsin Triennial

With a glacial history like no other, Wisconsin contains a geographical landscape full of forests, rivers, and thousands of lakes. Artists who are from Wisconsin or now live in Wisconsin, are encouraged to include nature in their work not by an external influence, but rather an inherent connection internally with the landscape that surrounds them. Artists use this connection as a means of inspiration, as a vehicle to tell stories, and as a material to incorporate. Many artists in the Wisconsin Triennial Exhibition have an urge to form or highlight a connection between humankind and their natural environment in a time where this connection may seem more distant than ever.

Several artists include connections between humans and natural life as a means of storytelling. Mythical worlds are painted and drawn where humans and animals inhabit lush worlds with a shared goal of peacefully coexisting. Many of these artists refer to a childhood full of exploration outside where they conjured up fantasies that now reflect in their work. The references to childhood memories indicate that the natural world can provide inspiration for how one maneuvers the world and can especially have a tendency to seep out of the subconscious during creative endeavors. Gina Litherland’s fantastical paintings all involve an interaction between a female protagonist and the natural world. Litherland attributes her inspiration for these paintings to her childhood of roaming around woods. Fransisco Mora also portrays a coexistence between animal and human in his Mexican Surrealist-inspired drawings. In his piece, Travesí en la panza de un Burro, the viewer sees an obvious connection as the central human figure is shown within the donkey, creating the appearance that they are one and the same.

Apart from representation of nature, many artists in the Wisconsin Triennial introduce natural elements in their work. By bringing an object found and created outdoors inside the gallery, a connection is created by the artist that may seem increasingly distant. This concept of connection gains importance during an era in which the impacts of everyday human action is more and more obscured. We are starting to see a shift in a demand for transparency in the food and clothing industries by consumers. Artists that include natural objects in their works may be promoting this idea of transparency themselves into the confined environments of the white walls inside of a gallery. Emily Arthur’s piece, Cherokee by Blood, 2018, involves a sculpture that consists of a bronze- covered dead songbird collected from a zoology lab. The piece requires the viewer to interact with this sculpture to fully experience the rest of the work as it lays on documents of first-hand accounts of displacement of Cherokee. The use of natural wildlife remains is used as a conceptual and physical weight. Ed Erdmann uses soil, water, wind, and river sediments to construct landscape paintings in an effort to connect viewers with an emotional response to looking at nature. Both Arthur and Erdmann’s inclusion of natural elements are used to create a visceral, 3-dimensional experience. The inclusion of natural elements in works reflects a tendency for artists in the area to feel that one’s art is inherently tied to the land around them. The realization that the art one creates exists as an entity living in the same world as the natural landscape may not be a new concept (i.e. land art in the 60s and 70s), but it may be a theme that gains more traction as humankind slowly discovers and addresses the ecological impacts we have on the natural world.

A photograph can sometimes lie between the representation of nature and the inclusion of nature in a piece of art. The process of landscape photography involves setting out into nature and may even introduce an element of the landscape depending on the process. A photograph may be, but many times is not, a physical connection to nature, however, it can quickly connect a viewer from a gallery to a place emotionally and spiritually. Tomiko jones uses photography in her installations to show a personal relationship between a natural landscape and a journey of remembrance. Suzanne Rose uses photography as a form of documentation of locations where human-made and nature-made elements intersect. By labeling the pieces with coordinates, her work doubles as geographic map for viewers to relate their own location with the image captured.

Artists have included nature in their work for as long as art has existed. Cave paintings included depictions of wildlife dating back to the Ice age. Even today, artists tend to still be focusing on the connection between humankind and nature as driving thematic elements in their works. Artists, like Litherland and Mora who use nature to convert paint and charcoal into magical stories, Arthur and Erdmann who incorporate physical elements of nature into their works, and Jones and Rose who bring nature in through the lens of a photograph, all include this connection to show the power of knowing how we relate to the world around us. In a time where this connection feels to be dwindling, artists are working to preserve this emotional and physical tie before it is lost entirely.