A view of the installation, including “Basket,” 2015, etched birchbark by Barry Dana, American, born ca. 1958 and “Rondo,” 1981, barbed wire, metal rods, and wire by Deborah Butterfield, American, born 1949. Photo by Dennis Griggs/Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

A dried ear of corn hangs inside a wire-mesh cylinder mounted on the wall over a wide metal square. Visually, it’s quirky enough to draw you in. What you learn is that it was cultivated on a Superfund site in Minnesota and that it contains the toxic heavy metal cadmium. On one hand, it’s a horrible reminder that seemingly healthy food can gather poison. But it is also proof that there are unexpectedly creative ways to draw human-caused pollutants out of contaminated ground.

“Caged Corn,” 1992–2014, hybrid cadmium accumulated dwarf corn (harvest sample 1991), redwood, galvanized steel by Mel Chin, American, born 1951. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

“Caged Corn” is a work by contemporary artist Mel Chin. It’s one of the very first works you see in “Material Resources: Intersections of Art and the Environment” on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through June 2.

A quick glance around the room reveals a show of almost perplexing diversity: a ribbony wooden chair by Frank Gehry; a centuries-old ornate Persian battle helmet; a ball of Indigo from Nigeria; a formline design ceremonial pipe featuring an orca and raven stealing the sun; a Marsden Hartley painting; a page from a 13th-century Turkish medical manuscript; and photos, prints and drawings from around the world and throughout the ages. And each object offers a tantalizing connection to the first room’s theme of “extraction.”

The iron, steel and silver of the stunningly gorgeous helmet together give a picture of 18th-century Persia’s “geologic economy” and hint about the need for important non-local resources.

Nearby is a highly realistic Egyptian funeral portrait painted almost 2,000 years ago in encaustic (wax-based) paint. Every time I see it, I think of how all those white classical statues were actually painted like that (but very few surviving statues have any encaustic still on them, partially because our “expert” antiquities dealers made a practice of removing it over the past couple centuries), but in this case, we’re looking at the thin piece of wood on which the image was painted. Having been tested scientifically by Bowdoin, the wood, it turns out, came from northern Europe and made its way to Egypt. How, we must ask, did that happen?

“Fayum Mummy Portrait of a Young Man,” Roman Egypt (Fayum?), ca. second century CE, wood (limewood, tilia), wax-based paint (encaustic), gold leaf. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Maine furniture maker Lynette Breton’s 1998 “Ancestral Table” is immediately striking for its handsome design. But there’s more to it: The wood is 1,500-year-old Estonian bog oak, and it is decorated with shimmering abalone shell and woolly mammoth tusk. How could we not have questions? To begin, the “wood of the czars” was retrieved in the 1990s and the tusk was revealed because the ancient permafrost melted due to climate change. And Mammoth ivory is legally tradeable because its creators are long extinct – which was news to me.

“Material Resources” has an environmental basis, but it’s a show about the intersections of culture and the environment divided into three sections: extraction, conservation and development. Most importantly, it’s geared toward expansive thinking. We are invited to make connections and create our own ideas by comparing and contrasting disparate (and generally quite beautiful) objects.

The “conservation” section features photographs and paintings made by artists with an eye to documenting the American landscape. But in this context, we can’t help but follow unlikely strands of thought. Thomas Cole was a master of the Hudson River School – all those paintings of vast and sublime majesty – but when I look at his unfinished 1846 “Lake Mohonk” in this context, I can’t help but think about the painterly strokes in the unfinished sections that feature standard pigments like “burnt umber,” which is quite simply burnt dirt from Umbria.

We see a photo of a photo of ancestral Pueblo (formerly called Anasazi) cliff dwellings above a clay bowl that the ancestral Puebloans decorated with gray and black slip. The land became their homes and their tools.

Nearby, we see a full-sized horse made of barbed wire and other metal found by contemporary artist Deborah Butterfield near her Montana ranch. Barbed wire was an American invention first widely used for ranching (and thereby colonizing) lands in what is now the western United States.

One particularly interesting piece is a lidded birch bark vessel made by former Chief of the Penobscot Nation Barry Dana in 2015. Etched on the outside of the vessel are images of western Native Americans based on photographs by Edward Curtis from the late 1800s. Curtis has been criticized for romanticizing his subjects to the point of cliche, so Dana’s blending of traditional techniques with these photo-based images gives pause. I didn’t know what to make of it for a long while, finally settling on seeing it as a compelling bit of reclamation.

“Development” features a blend of good ideas and tough-to-swallow realities. Robert Henri’s 1902 “Coal Breaker” is one of Bowdoin’s more important paintings, but here we see the dusky scene as a black tower in a polluted land of night. Yvonne Jacquette’s large 1983 aerial view drawing of the Maine Yankee nuclear plant is a jaunty image, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions about the long decommissioned plant that still houses a trillion highly radioactive pellets.

A high point of the show is a large and lively drawing the architect Le Corbusier made at Bowdoin during his first visit to America in 1935. The image illustrates aspects of his “Radiant City” – a planned community that accounted for living space, work sections, greenspace, sunlight and the environmental impacts of the development. It was a utopian vision, but it modeled many concerns that are now contemporary reality.

Untitled (Plan for a Model City), 1935, chalk by Le Courbusier, French, 1887–1965. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Punctuating the show is a video and accompanying series of five blueprint-like works by Stephanie Rothenberg, who is Bowdoin’s first Roux Scholar in residence at the new Roux Center for Environmental Studies. The series, titled “Trading Systems: Bioeconomic Fairy Tales,” digs metaphorically, wittily and scientifically into creating utopian-ish solutions for the very serious problems facing post-hurricane Puerto Rico. She uses organic systems like growing bread mold and creating a working lamp battery powered by lemons. She also illustrates illustrates how to make a “foxhole radio” – an AM receiver that requires no power that was built by on-hand objects (a razor blade, wire, etc.) and used by U.S. troops during WWII. The effect of Rothenberg’s work is to supercharge the viewer’s imagination. If we can do those things, what can’t we do? And what else can we do with those accessible tools? Post-hurricane Puerto Rico is a tough subject, but Rothenberg’s can-do aesthetic is uplifting, forward-thinking and encouraging – perfect for a college setting.

Organized by Honor Wilkinson, the museum’s curatorial assistant, “Material Resources” is a fascinating and thought-provoking show. It seems to go everywhere. It can be troubling. It can be funny. It is supremely diverse. And it features extraordinary historical objects, quirky works of contemporary art, incredible craft and brilliant design, all gathered for a common cause.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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