“The Perilous Texas Adventures of Mark Dion” is quite unlike most art museum exhibitions, in that the pieces on view do not fall into the same easily identifiable classification, style or period.
Instead, what ties them together is how they help us to see and understand the natural landscape of the place called Texas, as seen through the eyes of artist Mark Dion, and of a cast of collaborators reaching back to the 19th century.
“Texas Adventures” shows the fruits of two journeys of exploration, which the artist undertook, in collaboration with curator Margaret C. Adler, over the past five years. The first journey explored the landscapes of Texas, traveling more or less westward from Galveston Bay to El Paso, and following in the footsteps of the first 19th-century naturalists and artists to document and publish their studies of these lands.
The second, equally interesting journey was an expedition into the Amon Carter Museum’s storage vaults in order to find and display objects from the museum’s collections that would help tell these stories. Thus, both historical and freshly unearthed objects are on display side by side, telling the story of the Texas landscape.
For example, beautiful 19th-century landscape paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Martin Johnson Heade, and an 1871 albumen-silver photograph by William Henry Jackson, all from the Carter’s collection, show us 19th-century views of the natural world. But a bit later on, we also see specimens collected by Dion himself: a plastic Ziploc bag of soil samples from Marion in November 2018; a vial containing West Texas chewing gum (dated July 2018); and the bones of a West Texas coyote (also July 2018). The effect is to simulate, or re-create, the activity of study and classification, as if we visitors are artist-naturalists ourselves.
The exhibition unfolds in three parts: In the first part, we get an introduction to 19th-century exploration, through the eyes of the artists and scientists who tried to document nature through drawing, photography, writing and otherwise. In the second part, we learn about the life and work of the four such explorers whose Texas paths Dion followed for this project. And in the third part, we see the results of Dion’s own journeys and observations: his own “cabinet of wonders” with his collections and research.
The basic framework of “Texas Adventures” is set by the story of the four artist-explorers who arrived from the “civilized” East Coast after Texas achieved independence from Mexico, who undertook to report back on the wild country here. Demonstrating just one example of the challenges faced in those days, we see an enormous glass plate on display in a case. To make a single photograph in the 1850s, this heavy plate would have to be lugged on muleback across the wilderness, then lugged again back to civilization — without breaking it.
Two of those explorers, bird expert John James Audubon and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, are already well-known. However, this exhibition originated not with either of those two, but instead with the Carter’s collection of watercolors by Sarah Ann Lillie Hardinge, who had come to Texas from Boston in 1852 to investigate a family land claim. (The fanciful hand-drawn map of this claim is included in the show.) Introduced to Hardinge’s work when she arrived at the museum, curator Adler had the idea that eventually blossomed into this exhibition.
Hardinge’s small watercolors from the Carter’s collection are some of the earliest views of the Texas landscape in existence. As a self-taught artist, Hardinge’s compositions have a certain charming naivete, coupled with a precise, detailed, disciplined execution that makes them absolutely fascinating to study — for example, the 1856 view of Mr. Polley’s Plantation, Hardinge’s last residence in Texas, before she returned east that year.
Through Facebook, Dion and Adler were able to get in touch with the couple who currently own the Polley plantation and arrange for a visit. This is one of countless stories told in the book that accompanies the exhibition.
Jumping back and forth between the itineraries of the earlier explorers, and that of Dion as he followed them, can sometimes be a bit confusing — but the payoff is a vivid sense of how the landscape’s past and present connect. Anyone who enjoys stopping on the highway to read Texas state historical markers will love this exhibition.
While the historical parts of the show come across as quite serious, partly reflecting the conditions and challenges faced by Hardinge and others, Dion’s work is much quirkier, even occasionally funny. He created a “Texas wallpaper” for the galleries, consciously avoiding cliched images of cowboy hats and six-shooters. Instead, the pattern shows the plants and animals that he studied here.
Dion’s basic approach is to use the methods of a scientist, while enjoying the freedom of a creative artist. And the exhibition shows us a collection of his working materials from this project, centered on the enormous Texas Cabinet that holds his collections, and his actual working desk, covered in materials. He admits to identifying somewhat with the psychology of hoarders, filling countless cigar boxes with whatever strikes his roving eye.
Not bound by the restrictive rules of academic science, Dion feels free to show us every interesting thing that he came across in his journeys: documentation of his first Whataburger meal; a collection of coil springs; a brick stamped “Texas.” Similarly, in Dion’s specimen jars, you might see examples of shells, nuts, plant stems — and Cheerios. In a collection of vegetable gourds, you might notice a stray Styrofoam buoy included in the lineup.
It’s amusing to discover these little surprises, but the serious aim is to encompass the full breadth of what an explorer might discover, and not to be limited by the categories of “artistic” or “scientific.” Furthermore, the show is an encouragement to the conservation of natural beauty, and the preservation of historical memory. Depictions of a number of beautiful landscapes (including the wildlife-filled Galveston Bay) are a reminder of what lies just beyond the edges of the Dallas-Fort Worth sprawl. “Nature,” he says, “survives despite our best efforts.”
Although Dion has worked on projects internationally since the 1980s, this is the first chance to see his work in depth here. Until now, the closest alternatives would have been his permanent installation in Tulsa’s riverfront park, and a handful of earlier exhibitions in Austin. Thus, Adler’s smart move in inviting Dion paid off, in opening a new chapter of his work.
In a way, Dion’s work is a throwback to the days before art, science and history became so separate and distinct, as they are today. A 17th-century “cabinet of curiosities” might contain religious relics and animal specimens alongside paintings and sculptures. And in ancient times, Pliny’s Natural History included both geography and zoology along with art. Any of these types of objects, in fact, can possess their own fascination and interest, and may elicit from viewers a sense of wonder at their beauty.
Today in booming Texas, many millions of newcomers live side by side with the descendants of old Texas families, like the ones Hardinge met on her expedition. Both groups of people can appreciate how Dion explores this land with a sense of wonder and an outsider’s perspective — a shared appreciation that might even help bring people together.
“The Perilous Texas Adventures of Mark Dion” runs through May 17 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free. 817-738-1933. cartermuseum.org.