Still Life with Life
An artist mother, an ecologically sensitive woodsman father, and a childhood spent exploring the outdoors and planting trees in Richmond, VA – these early influences are the underpinnings of Isabella Kirkland’s abiding interest in art and natural science and the intersections between the two. Kirkland says, however, that it wasn’t until the 1990s that she married her artwork to her childhood interest in nature. During the next two decades that marriage has resulted in an oeuvre of sumptuous, richly detailed, and thematically linked oil paintings that are a keen study of humanity’s impact on the natural world.
Kirkland is an artist and research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and that professional background shows in her two series, Taxa and Nova. Stylistically reminiscent of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch still life paintings, the nearly 700 plant and animal species depicted in Kirkland’s elaborate paintings were meticulously researched, photographed, measured, and drawn from specimens viewed at natural history museums and from plant and animal samples from around the world.
The six 48”x36” Taxa paintings feature two categories of species: those that are extinct or in decline, and those that have either come back from the brink of extinction or are out-competing native species in lands where they were introduced. All the plants and animals, painted at life-size, are carefully arranged in dense tableaux that recalls classical paintings of floral arrangements or dead game. Although this suite highlights the immense destructive and disruptive influence humans have had on ecosystems, at least one of the paintings, Back, showcases species that have been saved through careful husbandry, offering hope that human influence can sometimes also be restorative.
In the Nova series, Kirkland applies the same classical style to a rainforest setting. This time she zooms in on plant and animal species discovered during the past 20 years. (Many scientists believe that only about 10 to 15 percent of species on Earth have been identified and given a Latin name.) Many of the plants and animals depicted are from different continents and would never be seen together in real life. Nor are they all painted at life size, as in the Taxa series. Kirkland’s intention here is to hint at the “crowding of more and more of our biodiversity into smaller and smaller plots of uninhabited land” and alert us to “the possibilities of what could be if we take action to protect our natural resources.”
Centuries ago, the Dutch Masters’ opulent still lifes included vanitas (vanity symbols) like skulls, wilting flowers, and decaying food to remind viewers of life’s impermanence. Kirkland’s richly textured paintings convey a similar message about our imperiled biosphere.
Isabella Kirkland’s paintings have been shown in galleries across the United States and Europe and are included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s permanent collection. To see more of her work, including annotated versions identifying every species pictured, visit www.isabellakirkland.com.