New year

2014 at the NMA

“Somerset,” part of <i>nanoq: flat out and bluesome</i> by artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson.

“Somerset,” part of nanoq: flat out and bluesome by artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson.

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Among the many exhibitions currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art is a pair of large-format color photographs of polar bears, “Bristol” and “Somerset.” The second photograph is almost surreal: a stuffed polar bear stands upright in the hallway of an English home, holding a bouquet of electronic flowers. The bear’s lips are curled up in a bemused, bittersweet grin. It seems humorous, like a Coca-Cola commercial brought to still-life, but it’s such a wildly inappropriate environment for a polar bear that it also speaks to the displacement of these animals whose habitats are being destroyed by the effects of climate change.

The photographs are part of larger collection of artwork called nanoq: flat out and bluesome by Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson. The artists documented all the stuffed polar bears in the UK, presenting both on-site photographs of the bears where the artists found them, and gallery exhibitions of the taxidermy animals. The artists also researched each bear and created dossiers about their lives and chemically enhanced afterlives.

Those two photographs serve as a kind of preview for some of the museum ’s programming and upcoming exhibitions for 2014. The early months of 2014 will include exhibitions of works by Santa Barbara painter Patricia Chidlaw, popular local landscape painter Phyllis Shafer, and beloved children’s author Maurice Sendak.

But a major focus of the second half of the year will be on works related to the NMA’s Center for Art + Environment, and the museum’s October triennial A + E Conference. The related September exhibition, Late Harvest, will explore representations of animals in contemporary art, and will include more work by Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson, along with many other artists, including some of the biggest names in contemporary art, like Damien Hirst.

William L. Fox, director of the museum’s Center for Art + Environment, says there will be three threads of conversation at the conference.

“One thread is post-humanism, and that’s talking about how we decenter humans,” says Fox. “Instead of being on a pyramid, where supposedly we’re at the top of some theoretical apex, we’re on a spectrum with a bunch of other species.”

The second theme is what Fox describes as “geoaesthetics,” making invisible environmental systems visible through art. The final thread Fox describes is “Field works, with a capital F.” An example of this kind of project is assisting The Nature Conservancy in re-meandering the Truckee River after years of urban development and flood control engineering projects have straightened out portions of the river.

“When you take meanders out of a river, you basically turn it into a fairly stagnant water, so the fish population was declining, vegetation was dying, and erosion was becoming a problem,” says Fox. “By reestablishing the river’s ability to carve its own path—and that’s what TNC is doing—they’re not just making a path, they’re making a path that will allow the river to carve its own path in the future.”

The NMA and TNC are working with artists Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien, who create riverbed bulwarks that also function as sculptures woven out of local materials and staked in place with indigenous plants, like willows.

“When you come back in a couple of years, the sculpture’s gone, and there’s a bunch of willows in place part of the stream bank,” says Fox.

These kinds of aesthetic interventions raise questions about lines between manufacturing artworks and environmental activism—one of a number of conversations that might arise out of a visit to the NMA in 2014.