Death and Taxa: Isabella Kirkland: Stilled Life

April 26th, 2014  |  Published in *  |  1 Comment

by Jonathan Kamholtz

Dayton Art Institute
February 22, 2014-May 18, 2014

Many years ago, I saw a group of photographs of tulips in bloom, pulled out of the ground, dirt still clinging to the bulbs and roots, captured after they had been laid out horizontally on a table. They were part of a group show in a strip mall. The photographs were not what I had come to see and I am a little embarrassed at how little I can now remember key details about them, including the artist’s name. Were they platinum prints or just under-exposed? Were the flowers hand-colored or just a deeper gray, inviting me to think that they were purple as grapes, or a bruise? In my mind’s eye, I recall them as being monumental, but they could have been perfectly small. It seemed to me that the tulips wilted while you were looking at them; they were bouquets awaiting their autopsy at a morgue. I was stunned by them, and when the artist was pointed out to me, I told him that he had captured perfectly the operative word in “nature morte.” He was having none of it. He told me that he’d never do anything like them again. “It was murder,” he confided.

When it comes to nature, do we just love it to death? The current exhibition of Audubon’s original watercolors at the New-York Historical Society reminds us that Audubon was a great naturalist, connoisseur, artist, and slaughterer of birds. Anything that used to be alive that gets painted in a still life gets thrown out in the end. Who ate Cezanne’s peaches when he was done with them? While the still life may preserve the evanescent for all eternity, it does not seem like an optimistic art form. It is immersed in the possibility of melancholy and mourning. With or without the motifs of the skull or the half-closed gold watch, there are strong connections between the great still life traditions of the 17th century and the vanitas motif: we are told to go ahead and love those flowers, the spiral-peeled lemon, the filleted fish, the half-eaten meat pie, but think on death.

As a posting on the Kirkland exhibition wall notes, the vanitas theme “takes on a new dimension when viewed through an environmental lens.” If the vanitas motif adds to the classic Dutch celebration of middle class extravagance a codicil about not losing your spiritual bearings, Kirkland brings a more broadly cultural j’accuse that today, we are driving nature into the ground. It is a note that readers of Barbara Kingsolver would find familiar. Kirkland’s argument is that there may hardly be such a thing as nature anymore, and that what we take for nature is in danger of becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mankind Inc. We’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot. In “Nature in the Margins: Love Nest” (1997), we see the distant lights of a big city in the background, while in the middle ground looms a suburban development. In the foreground, two birds are prospecting for nesting materials in a clearing with leaves, cut grass, a button, and the top of a blue Bic pen. It’s not that the world that Kirkland depicts is choked with litter, exactly, since the objects have some of the magic of Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers,” but it’s hard to see the border between the human and the natural, or the mundane and the extraordinary.

Part of the audacity of Isabella Kirkland’s “Stilled Life” paintings is that she has chosen a form that revels in the static to capture the passing of time on a global scale. The core of the show are six very large paintings done between about 2000 and 2004 that she calls “Taxa,” or categories. Each is a monumental arrangement of portraits of species that fall under one of her taxonomies: Ascendant, Descendent, Gone, Back, Trade, and Collection. Kirkland has a dynamic vision of plant and animal life. Populations of species are getting stronger or weaker; they are extinct or have been saved from extinction; their fortunes are enslaved to mankind’s trafficking in them or mankind’s adoration of them, which can prove to be equally fatal. One of the most dangerous things about humankind’s relationship to nature is that we love things best in hindsight, and we’ve been very efficient at facilitating those backwards glances. Don’t it always seem to go? In “Gone,” there is an egg of a Great Auk, a flightless bird that was driven to extinction by the middle of the 19th century, not far from a rendition of an Arabian ostrich egg. The ostrich egg in the painting is a very particular specimen, Kirkland meticulously capturing the narrative about its ownership that has been inscribed in ink around the shell. But part of the story of the extinction of the Great Auk, as with several other species, is that as the species became rarer and rarer, naturalists redoubled their efforts to secure eggs for various collections, scientific and otherwise, hastening the species’ demise.

Kirkland, Gone

True to their ancestry in 17th century Holland, Kirkland’s still lifes are profoundly artificial. Flowers are always exuberantly in bloom, just as they might have been in Eden, and the animals fully cooperate with having their portraits taken.  They have leisure to pose, though there is sometimes more than a hint of taxidermy—an art form getting more attention these days than it has seen for some time—to their eyes and postures. The representation of fish presents a persistent challenge to design logic. Sometimes they’re in a fish bowl and sometimes they can be glimpsed through a porthole, but sometimes they seem to be set out on a serving platter, depending on their scale. Species from different ecological systems from all over the world enjoy their peaceable kingdom together, as they have been doing on Western culture’s dining tables for centuries, the result of empire and cross-breeding. The paintings depict—and arguably, celebrate—impossible conversations among species. If you’re finicky about ecological coherence, you’re more likely to find them in the painted backdrops you’ll find at a zoo or a natural history museum. Kirkland comes closer to these in her series of Nova paintings, which capture the rain forest in a series of vertical slices, from “Forest Floor” to “Canopy.” They are decorative in adventurous ways. Like some of the culture-changing works of the 1890s, they turn their backs on the notion of dramatic and hierarchical composition in favor of a decentered and all-over look.

There is almost an excess of harmony among the animals in Kirkland’s work, nearly none of which appear to have objectionable eating habits. I saw a snake eying a potential meal and a mongoose with a feather in its mouth, and in “Forest Floor,” a marmoset is munching on a fresh mudbug, but otherwise Kirkland’s nature is red in neither tooth nor claw. Forcing them into the context of a still life struck me as both willful and tough-minded; there is very little attempt in the “Taxa” paintings to capture natural behaviors. Each painting is readable, sometimes a triumph of discrete parts over the whole. There are placards available to carry around with you to help you pick out the specimens from the crowds of stems and blooms. It’s a little like playing “Where’s Waldo?” Groups were gathered around pictures pointing and talking, sometimes saying “bird, turtle, bird, bird, fish,” but sometimes telling each other stories about species that could be found near where they had grown up. I understand the value of keeping the exhibit family-friendly, though I sometimes wish that exhibits wouldn’t feel the need to give people things to do besides looking at the art. Disclosure: I used the placards too. But it was an odd feeling how much more comfortable one can feel with the unknown things in nature if we can attach a name to them—and all the more odd in an exhibit that wants, in some part, to call out our culture for its many ways of colonizing the things with which it is unfamiliar.

It was interesting that more people knew the names of extinct species than of the species severely threatened; there is a certain notoriety that accompanies extinction. “Gone” (2004) is Kirkland’s picture from the “Taxa” group about some five dozen species that have permanently lost their places. There is a jar of preserved Jamaican Galliwasps, a secretive lizard, and a jar of Gastric-Brooding Frogs, formerly of Australia. There is also a live one in a fishbowl, looking out at us with a tiny frog staring out at us from the mother’s open mouth; the Gastric-Brooding Frog gave birth orally. Gathering them together, Kirkland faces an interesting problem: What exactly needs to be preserved in her painting? What exactly is the best way to remember them? Should a plant, for example, be captured in its Platonic purity, its ideal form, or in its Aristotelian randomness, showing a specimen as one might actually have encountered it? The general or the particular—or, from an American perspective, Emerson’s view of nature or Thoreau’s? She decided to represent the leaves of her plants with a modest amount of insect damage, and she seems to take delight in reminding us that snails leave slime trails. But there is a part of her art that carries this even farther, and is intensely, almost obsessively, committed to capturing the specimen exactly the way you’d see it in the real world. The skull of the extinct Tasmanian Tiger, for example is the skull as you would encounter it today, with a museum accession number painted on it.

In two of the most remarkable paintings in the exhibit, which don’t seem to belong to one of her major series, Kirkland examines extinction the only way we can actually know it: from specimens prepared for display and study in university and museum collections. In “Bachman’s Warbler (EX)” (2011), a dozen preserved birds are lying in a row in a cardboard box. We can see variations in natural detail, but we can also read virtually all the information on each of the tags, telling us when each specimen was collected and where and how it entered the collection. All this is on narrow slips of paper tied to their feet like toe tags in a morgue; the relationship to a crime scene is, I think, not an accident. In the similarly small-sized “Great Auk Eggs” (2011), two variegated specimens sit side by side on cotton batting in cardboard boxes. The eggs are inscribed with names and numbers; tags give their provenance (one reached the British Museum from the Canon Tristram Collection via the Crowley Bequest). Determined to show just what it means to preserve all the data with forensic completeness, Kirkland includes the ink smears and even the dirty fingerprints on the yellow measuring tape which is there to provide scale. To preserve a species once it is extinct means preserving all the data that can be mustered. This is what it means—the folly and the grandeur—when a species is reduced to a thing.

Isabella Kirkland, Bachman’s Warbler (EX), 2011

Representational paintings are always paintings of things. Our relationship to things—particularly things that used to be alive—is complicated. You may indeed own it, but you also need to own up. The most equivocal of the “Taxa” paintings, I thought, was the one called “Collection” (2002). Orchids, chameleons, the jaws of a shark: beyond the things that humans traffic in (which gets its own painting, “Trade,” in the “Taxa” series), this, the wall tag tell us, is “an exploration of humans’ desire to possess; whether for study, exhibition, or simply to admire.” Or, of course, to paint.

As usual, Dayton’s curatorial staff has surrounded the exhibition with a wealth of material designed to provide contexts of various sorts. The featured coordinating exhibition, “In Bloom,” collected a number of still lifes from the DAI’s permanent collection, but I would not say that the collection’s strengths allowed them to shed much light on Kirkland’s sensibility, particularly her strong affinity for Dutch baroque and American luminism (especially Heade). In the hallway on the way into the exhibit hall was a collection of twenty photogravures by the wonderful nature photographer Karl Blossfeldt, but his interests are devoted to a micro scale and Kirkland’s interests seem macro, sometimes in the extreme. He also tries to capture a sense of nature untouched and hitherto unseen, where Kirkland’s nature has been repeatedly touched and scarred by the contact. But in one side room in the middle of the show, the museum has gathered together a version of the old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities: nature fully formed by man’s interest in the rare and the common, the beautiful and the ordinary. There are photographs of butterflies and specimens of weeds from the University of Dayton Herbarium collection, pressed leaves and flowers that look like the woodcut illustrations to a 16th century herbal. There is a glass case with odds and ends—an oyster or clam with holes trepanned into it (for buttons, perhaps?)—and the tiny bodies of birds with their feet crossed, as if prepared for burial. The wonderful clutter of the case is both elegant and tawdry. There is something to these objects that shows the best that the scientific mind can do to study and organize the biosphere, and there is something ruthlessly amoral about it all too. It is stuff that was collected because it could be collected. It seemed the perfect complement to Kirkland’s paintings.



  1. Isabella Kirkland says:

    April 28th, 2014at 12:50 am(#)

    Jonathan Kamholtz,
    Thank you for taking the time to think and write about my work. It is always interesting to hear what someone else can see that cannot be seen by the person who makes the work, particularly when that work was done over the course of a decade or more. There are a great many things said in a painting. Some ideas can be read and are intentional, and some are expressed in a more unconscious way, without intent, but no less present.

    I think of my work as democratic: I try not to dictate what is taken away by the viewer. If I only bring up questions, that is enough. If the paintings can inspire future taxonomists, that is enough. If people think more about their personal responsibility, that is enough. I want viewers to walk away with the idea that the critters and plants they see have the same right to life as humans do. If it takes an easily digestible form to attract thoughts that change minds, even a little, that too is enough of a contribution.

    While my “Where’s Waldo” cards do, perhaps, distract some from the direct experience of the paintings themselves, the stories that are included on the cards, are for me, a key piece of the overall works. Each species is a metaphor, when in the context of the story of its survival or surrender, for a situation where individual humans could have or did make a significant difference in the way that story ended or continues. My work is very much about taxonomy, and how the naming and ranking of species into an evolutionary timescale influences our understanding of humanity’s relationship to that species and “nature” in general. I think we learn best through story: from Aesop to the latest novel or film.

    The idealization in my work comes from several functional directions. One is that I never see any of these taxa together: each is studied separately and I never have so much as one photo or drawing of an animal or plant in the pose and light I in which I want to paint it. I have to do all of the “arranging” in my head. Second is that i want these species to be identifiable as that particular species even by the scientists who study them and for all time: I often work from the holotype. (The holotype is the “ideal” specimen chosen as the “perfect” or most “typical” of its kind and forever after it is the the specimen used for comparison purposes in museum collections.) So, yes, I do get kind of sucked up in the “ideal” and thereby, Identifiable. Thirdly, I do not know what a typical snake, or turtle, or hummingbird wound looks like. That is a measure of how hard I work toward verisimilitude.

    The concept of each thing being identifiable across decades or even eons, should the pictures last that long, is important to me. I want the images to stand as a snapshot of our attitude towards the shared habitats of the planet in our time.

    I do not mean this to be defense of my weaknesses: you did not mention those that I find most glaring! Thank you for that!

    Again, thank you for your observations. I will try to incorporate some of yours as I go forward with my next series on oceanic biota.
    Isabella Kirkland