Once Out of Nature

Artifacts / by Jessica Palmer /

Isabella Kirkland’s life-size paintings of exotic, recently discovered species capture a world caught between the joys of discovery and the threat of imminent loss.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. NOVA: Understory. Credit: Isabella Kirkland

Throughout my career in biology, I’ve often cited the Australian gastric brooding frog as a marvel of evolutionary adaptation: The mother frog swallows her eggs, develops her tadpoles in her stomach, and regurgitates them at maturity. Discovered in the 1970s, this bizarre frog was unable to adapt to changes in its environment and was known to science for barely a decade before becoming extinct.

Artist Isabella Kirkland’s meticulous oil paintings revisit this bittersweet tension between discovery and loss. Each life-size panel in her ongoing NOVA series includes dozens of species, from mammals and birds to insects and plants, all of which have been discovered by science in the past 20 years. NOVA: Understory (2007) depicts a sunlit paradise filled with 58 of these exotic new species, from the Panay cloudrunner to the sharp-snouted bush frog of Borneo, all reflected in a detailed taxonomic key. Understory is a celebration of biodiversity and a tribute to the enlightening power of science, but there’s a snake in the garden. Several continents’ worth of species appear crammed together, predators beside prey, ominously evoking the untenable concentration of species into dwindling islands of habitat. Kirkland’s previous series, TAXA, memorialized species endangered or driven to extinction by human activities. Understory prompts us to ask, will these species be next?

In many regards, the message of Understory is reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century cabinets of curiosities, rooms in which European collectors gathered rare and newly discovered specimens, arranging them in beautiful tableaux. Cabinets of curiosities demonstrated the wealth and power of their noble patrons and the successful imposition of taxonomic order on nature, and they served as tools for teaching and study. Just as curiosity cabinets were organized in idiosyncratic but logical ways that reflected the worldviews of their creators, Kirkland’s NOVA series groups together species from diverse geographic regions by habitat in order to emphasize their shared ecological plight. The branching tree at the heart of Understory, which resembles a phylogenetic tree or cladogram, reiterates the themes of order and commonality. And like the naturalists and collectors who filled the original curiosity cabinets hundreds of years ago, Kirkland, a former taxidermist, also traveled the world to study and sketch her subjects.

Understory also has much in common with the Renaissance-era Wunderkammern, or wonder cabinets, which predate curiosity cabinets and emphasized awe over taxonomy and logic. The viewer is delighted with sumptuous visual elements like shafts of stunning golden light, graceful birds and butterflies, and countless hidden treasures, including a suntiger tarantula, a green pit viper camouflaged by leaves, and a tiny Peruvian bird called Lulu’s Body-Tyrant. If these beautiful species have all just been found, the painting makes us eager to know what wonders we are yet to find.

So what is the lesson of Understory? Is it a wonder cabinet, bearing witness to the marvels of nature, or a curiosity cabinet, glorifying logical order and the power of science? Perhaps it transcends both. Biological specimens inevitably decay and fade; art, on the other hand, can preserve not just the body in stunning detail, but also the spirit, grace, and emotional impact of biological forms. The birds in Kirkland’s painting, for example, will remain vital, eyes sparkling and plumage unfaded, when their living prototypes are long extinct. And unlike cabinets of wonder or curiosity, art has the potential to make nature’s rarities accessible to a wider public.

By marrying biology and artistry, Understory conveys the reality of extinction in a way that may drive us to care if it might not already be too late. To paraphrase the poet W.B. Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,” Understory sings to us of what is past, and passing, and to come. It represents a moment that is likely to be brief: a moment when the euphoria of scientific discovery still outweighs the losses driven by our unrepentantly techno-optimistic culture. Can paintings like Kirkland’s motivate us toward change as extinctions accelerate? Or will Understory turn out to be a trophy of shame  — a memorial to foreseen losses that might have been avoided?  — Jessica Palmer is a biologist and artist. She blogs at Bioephemera for ScienceBlogs.

Originally published April 23, 2009

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