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Queens Chronicle

Nature as represented over hundreds of years

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Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2019 10:30 am

The human fascination with nature is a perverse history.

It’s all on lurid display now in “Hope is the Thing with Feathers, Art of the Natural World,” at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum, at Queens College in Flushing. The individual works in the exhibit are beautiful, but taken within the context of modern environmental peril, they can also be terrifying object lessons.

Guest curator Louise Weinberg has collected artworks that reflect the human relationship with nature ranging from as far back as about 1082 until 1964. The oldest is a mummy case, loosely dated AD 1081 to 332 BC, created for a falcon, the newest Andy Warhol’s “Flowers.”

“The exhibition and public programs form a platform in which to discuss the crisis facing our environment today and for generations to come, and how we must alter our point of view to embrace new global solutions and personal patterns of behavior,” the gallery notes say.

Warhol’s aggressively happy “Flowers,” serigraph on paper, can be a starting point. In our modern, sterile, indoor lives, we could see it as a homage to the extremes of color found in the floral palette. Flowers, in particular, can surprise us in the extreme, displaying colors in the natural world we might rush to say are so other worldly they can’t be found in nature ... but there they are!

Yet given what we know of the rapid destruction of species these days, will it ultimately be a sick representation, a trophy of something conquered, devoured and destroyed? Let us hope, as the title of the exhibit exhorts, that the story has a happy ending.

Collectively, or individually, we have toyed with nature the way she toys with us, loving her to death. Harold Anchel’s “Wind,” a lithograph on paper, illustrates a bit of where our antipathy may have come from. A girl-woman, perhaps in her very late teens, struggles against a very heavy wind. It must be a hurricane or near-tornado; she strains forward at a severe angle, her coat dragging behind in the onslaught. She prevails for a moment, but it’s difficult to imagine her making it to any safe destination any time soon, given the predicament displayed.

Dumb and reckless giants, we use, hunt, eat, wear and profit from all manner of flora and fauna until they go extinct, and then grieve and gnash our teeth over the loss.

A mummy bundle mask, a Wari piece from Peru, has an eerie similarity to today’s manga and anime characters and is a reminder of our ability to stand in awe of the power of nature. The piece is made from undyed natural fibers, hair and feathers, an item that ancient peoples are thought to have used to appropriate nature’s power.

We are also stewards who conserve, protect and defend Mother Nature’s gifts, forming maniacally codependent relationships with domestic pets, creating agricultural ecosystems that endure for countless years, and worshipping, across human history, all manner of flora and fauna in our art.

Was the falcon mummy case a resting place for a beloved animal? No doubt. Yet falcons were also used for work. Enslaved, if you will. What kind of a life did that falcon have? At least we know the species survives to this day.

Emily Dickinson’s poem, which gave the exhibit its title, is painted in full on a wall of the exhibit. “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers — that perches in the soul ...”

Admission at the museum is free, and you catch the spirit of the exhibit by using public transportation; numerous bus lines stop at or within a block or two of the campus.

Welcome to the discussion.