“Nature Cult,” Donald Moffett’s hauntingly encyclopedic art exhibit, on view until September 11 at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, is a whirlwind tour of highlights from the past century and a half of nature-focused art. nature of Europe and the western hemisphere. . The unusual exhibit design was conceived by Moffett and his local collaborator, McNay’s Curatorial Affairs Manager, Rene P. Barilleaux, as part of curating a mixtape and previously unseen creative expression. It includes a rehang of more than 140 impressive selections from the museum’s permanent collections, dozens of additional works from Moffett’s personal collection by other artists, and sixteen Moffett originals strewn throughout.
Monet’s water lilies are here (as always at the McNay), along with Edward Hopper’s sand dunes and John James Audubon’s animal portraits, but there’s also an Ed Ruscha gas station, a trash collage of Leonardo Drew and various abstract, ironic, documentary and more or less vehemently environmentalist artists of varying levels of notoriety. It’s an unruly and teeming spectacle, particularly hooked and confusingly intentional when it comes to Moffett’s own work, which is only a small fraction of what’s on view. Yet it holds up well with a cohesive sensibility rooted in reverence and mourning for a threatened natural world.
Moffett, who grew up in San Antonio, says he decided to become an artist after an encounter with a drawing by Georges Seurat at the McNay. Score one for art having a decisive impact on the viewer, an ambition that underpins the environmentalist alarmist aspect of “Nature Cult”. That early inspiration paid off – after earning degrees in art and biology at his hometown Trinity University, Moffett, now 67, built a successful artistic career in New York City. In the late 1980s, he came to prominence for his outraged and downright political art for the crucial AIDS activist group ACT UP. In an iconic print, He’s killing me, Moffett calls out Ronald Reagan for his culpability in the mass deaths of gay men who contracted HIV, then a poorly documented new virus.
Over the past few decades, Moffett’s art has matured into more indirect and arguably abstract works, though he’s still inspired by political themes ranging from anti-gay violence to the former member’s wardrobe. US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a fellow Texan. As Moffett’s aesthetic interest has shifted to exploring the materiality of paint, canvas, wood, and other materials, the representational relationship between his art and his stated subject may be increasingly more difficult to see. Yet his work continues to be acclaimed, including a flattering 2019 New York Times profile that featured works included in “Nature Cult”.
The weirdest thing about ‘Nature Cult’ – which is full of eerie visions, like a spiky rubber sculpture of Chakaia Booker suggesting a sadomasochistic porcupine, a large-scale print of a feather-studded psychedelic dreamscape and crystals by Jose Alvarez (DOPA), and a grotesque puppet of a dying polar bear by Iker Vicente – is the relative restraint of Moffett’s own works. Austere and indecipherable, they remain timidly among their most famous and eye-catching peers. One might even doubt that the works by Moffett included here are meant to comment on nature, if not for the two brief paragraphs of the exhibition text at the entrance to the exhibition, which present “the monochrome paintings of Moffett based on the natural environment and its precariousness. ”
Apart from this brief introduction, there is no wall text in “Nature Cult”. Paintings and sculptures are intentionally arranged haphazardly in space, without identifying labels, so we often don’t know what or who we are looking at. (Perplexed viewers can consult edited gallery maps to help sort things out after the initial immersive viewing experience.) Also, what works with others is a matter of intuition rather than timeline, geography, or of paternity. “We really try to explore and exploit the way artworks are presented in a museum setting,” says Barilleaux. “The labels are not in the foreground. Looking first.
It’s really fun, but most visitors risk losing track of Moffett’s work amid so many other diverging visions. And without titles or interpretations, we have little hope of guessing what political statement Moffett intended with any given product from his own studio. For example, if one knows the title of his “Lot 052021 (the air we breathe)” – a huge wooden surface painted blue with holes cut at an angle – one can guess that it could be a critique of smog or greenhouse gas emissions. Without the title, viewers are very likely to be confused or take it as an abstract work.
Is it important? Not at Moffett, it seems, and that’s fair enough. His artwork looks fabulous, striking yet neutral, potential additions to the walls of any collector’s home, whether we can make heads or tails of them or if we’re even supposed to be able to. Amid the painterly abundance of “Nature Cult,” Moffett’s own pieces stick out like sore thumbs, big and shiny, smooth and seamless.
Could it be that Mondrian, Goya, Diane Arbus, Kiki Smith, and others are all there just as a showcase, as an elaborate setting to showcase Moffett’s work? If so, it’s a bold move, bordering on egocentrism. But I don’t think that’s fair. By allowing other artists to outnumber him by almost ten to one, Moffett makes “Nature Cult” mostly something beyond him. This largesse is the aspect of the show that will be most appealing to a large audience. Throughout the hot summer months of 2022, it will rightly attract visitors from San Antonio and beyond to stroll through the cool thicket of this abundant exhibit.
A key question that remains with us after leaving the exhibit is what Moffett means by the title, specifically the word “cult.” His intent is not explained in the exhibit text, so we are free to provide our own guesses about Moffett’s quasi-religious aims. My thoughts are with the French theorist Georges Bataille, who wrote in his religious theory that “the animal is in the world like water in water”, postulating that religion and certain types of art and poetry are an attempt to return to this immediacy of the experience of nature and life itself. “Nature Cult” seems organized to cultivate this effect. These rooms are full of fantastical art, and the disorienting curation encourages us to get lost and swim in them. The question of Moffett’s mysterious works and what he is looking for falls, or perhaps floats above everything. Meanwhile, waves of each artist’s vision hit us one after another, until we feel unmoored, our own visions and thoughts about humanity’s tenuous place in the natural world mingling and combining with those of others, across generations in endless conversation.