by Renny Pritikin
When we walk down the street, we cross, unaware, through many overlapping and invisible realities. The territory of various bird species, for example, might encompass overlapping regions three blocks in any direction. Such invisibility falls into several subcategories: things that are too small to see or too fast. Also: imaginary things, things that no longer exist, disguised things, and other things we choose not to see. We could add things we’ve never encountered, as well. Isabella Kirkland, whose paintings are on view in a near-retrospective scale show at Hosfelt Gallery, explores almost all these aspects of the unseen. The exhibition, her first at the gallery, is appropriately called The Small Matter, a title meant to soften the urgency of the message her works communicate.
Kirkland is a scientific researcher, but she channels her findings into art rather than academic journals. She positions herself to see what is usually invisible by travelling the world and spending painstaking hours in the studio, flatly rendering in oil images of creatures she observes. Among her earliest works, and still among her most stunning, is a suite of six large paintings, cumulatively titled TAXA (1999-2004), that depict imaginary landscapes filled, respectively, with creatures that are either extinct, disappearing, collected, illegally trafficked, or emerging from near-extinction. They are not a part of this show, but two related works, Nova: Forest Floor (2007) and Emergent (2009), are. The images are fantastic in that each is chockablock-full of critters that are unlikely to have ever to have crossed each other’s paths. The result is not chaos but visual engagement of the sort that makes you lose track of time and your surroundings.
Though Kirkland attended SFAI in the 1970s when painting was an endangered species, after graduating, she studied taxidermy and taught herself botanical illustration and how to paint in the mode of 17th century Dutch Masters. She now belongs to that group of artists who are reclaiming painting and moving it toward extra-aesthetic ends. She’s been artist-in-residence at several science museums, and the research she’s been involved with occupies the cutting edge of the accumulated knowledge about non-human life on the planet. Not surprisingly, there’s a conceptual undercurrent to her work that shows the human need to impose taxonomical order onto nature, evidenced in drawers full of dead birds —many extinct—that cram the back corridors of our natural history museums, freezing time. By painting these permanently stored bodies, side-by-side, tagged and dated, and unnaturally bunched in storage like flocks of identical ghosts, Kirkland wryly moves from nature documentation to the realm of meta-commentary.
Two of the most extraordinary works in the exhibition—Nudibranchia and Phasmid Eggs — appear at the gallery entrance. Both are about tiny sea creatures as varied and rococo as any cartoon fantasy. With 4 x 5-foot canvases mounted against black backgrounds, Kirkland suspends dozens of sample species in neat rows, smallest at the top, largest at the bottom, Space-Invaders style. In the same way Wayne Thiebaud isolates discrete examples of human culture (cake!) to investigate shape and color, Kirkland
revels in these specific marine creatures to celebrate their almost incomprehensibly varied morphology and hues. Phasmid Eggs also depicts a field of lovely, if alien-looking, objects floating in a neutral field. They appear to be hand-sized vessels, maybe ceramic, with small lids, akin in appearance to Egyptian canopic funerary urns. They turn out to be near-microscopic egg sacs belonging to insects known as walking sticks, the caps of which, the artist tells us, are nutrient-rich food for ants, which transport them to their nests, eating the caps but leaving the eggs intact. In the upshot, the eggs are safely stored in a perfect environment untouched by the ants, a classic example of mutually beneficial species interdependence.
Kirkland has another body of work that, like the birds-in-drawers, is an extended meditation on museum storage practices. It involves the African Butterfly Research Institute, an enormous repository of 5.5 million butterflies accumulated by a collector in Kenya. The fragility of the specimens and the collector’s inability to afford proper storage have put this invaluable resource in jeopardy. Kirkland has produced tour-de-force images documenting row after row of these insects, down to the barely visible pins holding them in place. While impressive and dramatic, they feel less compelling, perhaps because of the ubiquity of such imagery in photography and design. No matter. The Small Matter is a large exhibition that includes many other investigations, including a set of small works about lichen and moss that edges toward photorealistic and Edibles, which depicts dozens of bugs that humans like to eat.
Kirkland’s work is immediately accessible as representational natural history. But the artist’s larger ambition, besides sharing her unabashed wonder, is to ignite a political reckoning that will reverse our ignorance about what lies hidden beneath the skin of the known world in natural systems, waiting there to be found or to be lost.
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Isabella Kirkland, “The Small Matter” @ Hosfelt Gallery through June 12, 2021.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin retired in December 2018 after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Dramas and Westerns, in 2020.