February 24, 2022

PEM Shows a Changing Planet Through the Eyes of Two Artists

by Felicia Cheney

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The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents an exhibition of two artists, award-winning nature photographer Stephen Gorman and beloved New Yorker artist Edward Koren, and their response to our urgent planetary crisis. Down to the Bone: Edward Koren and Stephen Gorman is part of PEM’s Climate + Environment Initiative and is on view March 12, 2022 through February 26, 2023.

“Working independently but with uncanny synergy, Gorman and Koren consider the consequences of a destabilized natural environment and raise the alarm about our advancing climate crisis,” said Jane Winchell, exhibition co-curator and PEM’s Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center and curator of Natural History. “This is the first time that Gorman’s wildlife and landscape photographs and Koren’s drawings, lithographs and etchings have been exhibited together. We hope that visitors will find that these artists’ distinct but mutually reinforcing visions spark new ways of reflecting and responding to the biggest environmental challenges of our time.”

Edward Koren, © Edward Koren

Edward Koren (above) is among The New Yorkermagazine’s most published cartoonists and has been described as a dramatist of the Anthropocene. Recent work shows how Koren’s well-known cast of characters are transformed and reduced to an elemental state by the climate. Hair has given way to bones! While artists have long turned to depictions of skeletons to symbolize our own mortality, Koren’s skeletal creatures are inspired by our environmental crisis. Springing from the artist’s fertile imagination as he works in his home studio, the beings appear in landscapes littered with the fragments of civilization. With bewildered expressions, these darkly comic figures seem hapless to alter their fate, but share a profound realization of what is unraveling at their feet. 

Stephen Gorman, © Stephen Gorman

Stephen Gorman’s work uses photography to help show how the climate crisis is impacting our planet as well as our humanity in visceral and deeply personal ways. Concerned with how a culture of conquest, exploitation and individual gain leads to environmental destruction, Gorman traveled to Kaktovik, Alaska – an Inupiat village in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to document polar bears who have become climate refugees and face extinction as the arctic sea ice retreats and they are left to scavenge whale carcasses along the shore. His resulting images, many of which have never been exhibited before, invite you to hold the gaze of the bears as they stare out of the picture, affirming our common bond, connection, and interwoven fate. As Gorman says, “The loaded, emotional exchange of this moment with the bears communicates our dire situation in ways climate facts simply cannot.”

“Down to the Bone creates a dialogue between two dramatically different and, at first glance, seemingly unrelated artists,” said Trevor Smith, PEM’s Associate Director — Multisensory Experience and Curator of the Present Tense and exhibition co-curator. “Both artists are intensely interested in how the gaze of their subject suggests their awareness of the viewer – Gorman’s polar bears and Koren’s bushy-haired skeletons look us square in the eye. By exhibiting them together, a surprising and dynamic juxtaposition emerges between the works and a provocative tension shines through.” 

The two artists live less than an hour from one another in Vermont and serendipitously discovered that their work, though executed with different mediums, asks the same questions and shares a similar message. The artists believe the root of environmental crisis is cultural. We can empower ourselves by creating and reviving narratives that promote living within moral, ethical and natural constraints.

Environmentalist, journalist and author Bill McKibben describes the impact of experiencing Koren and Gorman’s works together: “These remarkable images need to be seen, and widely. We risk trading the splendor of our world for bones and ash. And nothing I’ve ever seen has ever made that clearer.”

The Down to the Bone gallery experience includes a video of the artists discussing their work and their individual approaches to the creative process, providing a window into how artists of various backgrounds are addressing climate change. The gallery also includes a picture book by Gorman, featuring the life of polar bears in the Arctic, and concludes with a response station where visitors can answer one of three questions inspired by Zita Cobb, an entrepreneurial advocate for sustainability. 

About Edward Koren

Visual artist and satirist Edward Koren (b. 1935, United States) is among the great New Yorker cartoonists whose images have defined that magazine over the last half-century. Composed with a flickering line, his shaggy characters — at once human and animal — are instantly recognizable. The most recent of his seven collections of New Yorker cartoons is Koren. In the Wild, 2018. He has written and illustrated children’s books, Behind the Wheel, and Very Hairy Harry. Koren is an inveterate collaborator, illustrating projects such as How to Eat Like a Child by Delia Ephron, A Dog’s Life by Peter Mayle, and The New Legal Seafoods Cookbook by Roger Berkowitz and Jane Doerfer. Prior to his Thinking About Extinction series (2015–present), environmental themes have surfaced periodically in Koren’s work all the way back to the 1970s. 

About Stephen Gorman

Stephen Gorman (b. 1959, United States) is an internationally recognized photographer and best-selling book author. His work focuses on how cultural values and national mythologies shape our relationships to the world we live in and the diverse societies with which we share it. Gorman is the author and photographer of several books including The American Wilderness: Journeys into Distant and Historic Landscapes, and Northeastern Wilds: Journeys of Discovery in the Northern ForestArctic Visions: Encounters at the Top of the World was commissioned by the Inuit of Nunavik and won the Benjamin Franklin award in 2011, one of the highest national honors for independent publishers. Throughout his career, Gorman has worked on cultural and environmental assignments for leading periodicals such as National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and Sierra. 

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