Addison Exhibit “A Wildness Distant from Ourselves” Dismantles Western Preconceptions of Nature

Great auk (Pinguinus impennis), collected in Iceland, early 19th century. Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA.

Standing tall with a book in one hand and a cane in the other, the bronze statue of a man adorned in a long, flowing cape looks ready to step off his marble pedestal. Dressed in Puritan garb including a top hat, knee high socks, and a waistcoat, the statue stands eye level with viewers.

The piece, titled “The Puritan,” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is featured directly in the lobby of the Addison Gallery of American Art as one of the many pieces from the new exhibit “A Wildness Distance From Ourselves.” Gordon Wilkins, Associate Curator at the Addison, curated this exhibition after a local community organization reached out to the Addison.

“I started about a year ago, when we had been contacted by the Andover Village Improvement Society (AVIS) because they’re celebrating their hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary this year, and they have been partnering with a lot of local institutions to do some sort of commemorative program or exhibit or talk,” said Wilkins.

In order to incorporate a narrative theme throughout the exhibition, Wilkins began thinking about the relationship between Indigenous Americans, European settlers, and the land itself. Although he does not have a core message in mind, Wilkins aims to deconstruct the dominant European narrative of American history.

“What we’re doing with all these shows is breaking down the foundational myths of America. I think we still don’t completely recognize the violence that’s been perpetrated on this land, against the land itself, and then the peoples who occupied it for thousands of years. We start our history with the pilgrims landing or English settlement and so the [show’s purpose] is really to break down these dominant narratives, and I think art is a really effective way to do it,” said Wilkins.

According to Wilkins, the relationship that humans in the United States have with nature originates from Christian perspectives. Early settlers viewed nature as sinful and in need of taming.

“[Consequences to the environment made by humans] came from…this puritanical sort of Christian belief…Nature was this irrational force for those who colonized the United States in the 17th century. And in order to fulfill their Christian mission, which was to create a sustainable settlement, you had to tame the wildness,” said Wilkins.

Wilkins believes the show is important because of the present-day consequences of the human relationship with nature.

Wilkins said, “This kind of hierarchy [where] humans are on top is something that I think is hard to shake and something that we still kind of conceptualize and that has, of course, informed all of our contemporary environmental issues with climate change.”

Combining a variety of different works such as landscapes and taxidermied animal specimens, Wilkins wanted the exhibition to include a diversity of mediums in order to strengthen the themes and topics addressed.

Wilkins said, “I also knew I wanted to include natural history specimens, because I like to integrate different media, I don’t just like pure painting shows or pure decorative art shows, and it’s such a complicated topic and so rich that I wanted to have a diverse experience.”

“A Wildness Distance From Ourselves” will remain on display in the Addison until July 31, 2020.