August 3, 2008
By Phillips, Anna Lena
An art-science collaboration yields rich insights Joint efforts between historically distinct disciplines raise a lot of questions- and, sometimes, eyebrows. In the case of art-science collaborations, skepticism can threaten to jettison experimentation: What can art say that science hasn't already said?An exhibit at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., suggests some answers to this question. Taxa, a series of paintings by Isabella Kirkland, groups species together in innovative ways that can stimulate conversation about human impact on the environment.
A visual artist and a research associate in aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences, Kirkland had already cultivated knowledge of and respect for the science of taxonomy when she began the series. "I had been working on individual, local endangered species," she says. "As the millennium was corning to an end, I decided to work on a grand scale-something more like a time capsule." The result of this exploration was the first painting, "Descendant" (1999), which portrays 61 species listed as endangered (or, in some cases, "presumed extinct") in the mainland United States, Hawaii or Central America.
Five subsequent paintings point up other issues in conservation science and biodiversity. "Ascendant" (2000) portrays species that have been introduced to the United States and are thriving.
"Trade" (2001, shown here) includes species that people value, harvest and sell, and whose populations have thus been depleted. The work's vivid colors underscore the human desire to own these creatures. "Gone" (2004) catalogues full-species, worldwide extinctions. Its colors are more subdued, making the piece a memorial to the organisms shown. Kirkland is currently working on Nova, three new paintings that depict species discovered since the passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Planning compositions that portray such great numbers of species with anatomical accuracy is a challenge, so Kirkland decided at the outset to use a time-tested genre. "The Dutch masters' still lifes looked pretty good after 400 years-you can pick out the genera of the bugs," she says. The paintings in Taxa use the genre to great effect. The large canvases are packed with life, but each animal and plant is rendered distinctly.
The series is the product of painstaking research. "I begin with the data," Kirkland says. She reads current scientific literature to find new leads, collecting detailed information on particular species. When she decides to include a species, she tries to see a specimen of it so that she can draw it at life size. "People are very generous with their time," she says. "Every time I go into any museum, I'm so profoundly shaken by the number of man-hours it represents. That's part of what I'm trying to laud."
Kirkland is modest about her hopes for this integration of biology and art. "If I inspire even three people to become taxonomists, I've won," she says. "They're not training taxonomists anymore-it doesn't have the bling of genetics." But considering species' differences and similarities is essential for our knowledge of how the world works, she believes. She also hopes the paintings will inspire people to "pay attention to biodiversity and think about their actions in terms of it." And the medium of painting itself has advantages: It can "get people to slow down" and have a deep experience of the art.
The work offers insights for visual art as well. "Nature art has sort of a bad name in the 'real' art world," says Kirkland. "I wanted to change that, to depict wildlife in a way that's not naive." But the paintings do not sacrifice artistry for accuracy. The lush, wellbalanced compositions invite the viewer's eye to travel around the canvas.
"The species in each painting don't belong together-so it's a fantasy in that regard," she says. Perhaps paradoxically, by removing species from their habitats, the paintings acquire the power to change our perception of the plants and animals within them. In this sense, Kirkland's work moves beyond the representation of scientific ideas to offer new ways of thinking about the organisms she depicts.
To broaden the audience for these works, Kirkland maintains a Web site, isabellakirkland.com. Users can explore the paintings and read more about select species. The Nova series will be added to the site once it is complete. She is also producing a series of three- quarter-size prints of the paintings. But the best way to experience these works will be to see them live and up close. The free exhibit, in the upstairs gallery of the National Academy of Sciences, runs April 10 to August 25 of this year.
A basic test for art-science might be whether it succeeds when judged by the standards of each discipline. The Roman poet Horace's dictum-"teach and delight"-comes to mind. Or, to use more-modern terms, is the project accurate and useful? And is it pleasing-does it succeed aesthetically? It will be revealing to consider other artscience collaborations in a similar light. As for Kirkland's paintings, it seems safe to answer both questions with a resounding yes.-Anna Lena Phillips
"Trade" (2001, 3' x 4'), by Isabella Kirkland, shows species that are prized-in whole or in part-by human beings. So that viewers can identify the species portrayed, Kirkland has created a visual key and species list (reproduced on the next two pages). Orchids and beetles feature prominently; a golden-headed lion tamarin (number 4 in the key) is nearly dwarfed by a mountain sweet pitcher plant (number 52).
This visual key for "Trade" (2001) corresponds to the species list on the facing page. All five completed paintings, as well as their keys, can be viewed on Kirkland's Web site, isabellakirkland.com.
Species List for "Trade"
1 Elephant ivory, Loxodonta africana
2 Pelt, clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa
3 Virginia flying squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus
4 Golden-headed lion tamarin, Leontopithecus chrysomelas
5 Green tree monitor, Varanus prasinus
6 Satanic leaf-tailed gecko, Uroplatus phantasticus
7 Yellow-headed day gecko, Phelsuma klemmeri
8 Radiated tortoise, Geochelone radiata
9 Golden poison dart frog, Phyllobates terribilis
10 Madagascan tree boa, Boa mandrita
11 Hawksbill sea turtle shell, Eretmochelys imbricate
12 Ruby poison dart frog, Epipedobates parvulus
13 Brookesia gecko, Brookesia peyrierasi
14 Gumey's pitta, Pitta gurneyi
15 Blue lorikeet, Vini peruviana
16 Red siskin, Carduelis cucullata
17 Lear's or indigo macaw, Anodorhynchus leari
18 Toucan barbet, Semnornis ramphastinus
19 Seven-colored tanager, Tangara fastuosa
20 Trumpet triton, Charonia tritonis
21 Glory-of-the-seas cone, Conus gloriamaris
22 Loebbecke's murex, Murex loebbecki
23 Golden cowrie, Cypraea aurantium
24 Red coral, Corallium rubrum
25 Fluted giant clam, Tridacna squamosa
26 Peruvian swallowtail, Papilio androgeus
27 Queen Alexandra's birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae
28 Jamaican giant swallowtail, Papillio homerus Fabricius
29 Luzon peacock swallowtail, Papilio chikae
30 Comet moth, Argema mittrei
31 Madagascan sunset moth, Chrysiridia ripheus
32 Agrias butterfly, Agrias claudina lugens
33 Tissue paper butterfly, Idea jasonia Westwood
34 Hawk moth, Xanthopan morgani praedicta
35 Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma Caucasus
36 Beyer's scarab, Plusiotis beyeri
37 Gold scarab, Plusiotis resplendens
38 Jewel beetle, Euchroma gigantea
39 Stag beetle, Lucanus cervus
40 Long-horned beech beetle, Rosalia alpina
41 Golden ground beetle, Carabus auratus
42 Metallic leaf chafer, Plusiotis chrysargyrea
43 Jewel scarab, Chrysina aurigans
44 Orchid mantis, Hymenopus coronatus
45 Slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum sanderianum
46 Ghost orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii or Polyradicion lindenii
47 Red vanda, Renanthera Imschootiana
48 Slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum lawrenceanum
49 Comet orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale
50 Slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum armeniacum
51 Gray's lily, Lilium grayi
52 Mountain sweet pitcher, Sarracenia rubra ssp. jonesii
53 American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius
54 Wooden table, monkey-puzzle tree, Araucaria araucaria
55 Rainbow plant, Byblis gigantea
56 Pitcher plant, Nepenthes macrophylla
57 Iranian iris, Iris paradoxa
58 Wooden stand, Patagonian cypress tree, Fitzroya cupressoides
59 Coca plant, Erythroxylum coca
60 Rosy periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus
61 Venus fly trap, Dionaea muscipula
62 Seeds, three-cornered palm, Neodypsis decaryi
63 Nellie Cory cactus, Coryphantha minima
64 Peyote, Lophophora diffusa
65 Jabali pincushion, Coryphantha werdermannii
66 Matsutake, Tricholoma magnivelare
67 White truffle, Tuber magnatum Pico
68 Priam's birdwing, Troides priamus
Copyright Sigma XI-The Scientific Research Society May/Jun 2008
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