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    Provocative exhibit asks what ‘nature’ really means

    Mathias Kessler’s “Object of Unbelonging”
    UMass Lowell
    Mathias Kessler’s “Object of Unbelonging”

    LOWELL — Landscapes have long shaped our notions of nature. Rembrandt’s landscape drawings, fluffed with foliage and stitched with fencing, describe a serene, livable Dutch countryside. The Hudson River School’s vision of a romantic, untamed wilderness helped prompt American expansion.

    These days, art about nature wrestles with what we have wrought. 

    “Aera Synthetica,” curated by artist Markus Haala at University of Massachusetts Lowell’s University Gallery, asks what “nature” really means. We tend to set up humanity in opposition to nature, but we’re part of it. And we’re changing it, all too quickly.


    Mark Dion’s clever print “Tree Scheme” is a primer. It’s a cartoon of a tree; the trunk is labeled “THE REPRESENTATION OF NATURE,” and branches include “THE MEANING OF ANIMALS” and “ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY.” A hatchet marked “capitalism” lies nearby. This is how we have organized what we know, and it has formed our beliefs.

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    Where has that thinking led us? The art here reflects the damage we’ve done and wrestles with our hubris. Michael Oatman’s antic collage “Farmed (Le Lion Couchant)” depicts tilled soil populated with armed soldiers and exploding tractors. “Le Lion Couchant” is a heraldic term; Oatman’s vision is more darkly emblematic than narrative.

    Haala’s own works unsettlingly mingle the natural and the synthetic. He made a polyurethane cast of a random square of a parking lot for “Synthetic Landscape #1 (Carbon Footprint),” asphalt-black and littered with gum and a bottle cap. This is a truly contemporary landscape, an environment more familiar to many than forests.

    Water will cycle through Haala’s “Habitat Pod,” a terrarium of weeds inside a Fiberglas shell, until it runs out, and the plants will die. Tubes connect to a photo of sickly herbs in a wooden planter. Even our well-intentioned interventions, this piece suggests, might be Frankensteinian blunders. 

    Todd Bartel’s collage “Proportions and Table Manners (Landscape Vernacular Series)” aptly correlates climate change with Adam and Eve’s eviction from Eden. “Aera Synthetica” acknowledges we are falling, and augurs a rough landing. 

    AERA SYNTHETICA. Surveying New Nature — a Markus Haala Project


    At University Gallery, Mahoney Hall, University of Massachusetts Lowell, 870 Broadway St., Lowell, through April 19. 978-934-3491,

    Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail
    . Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.