by David M. Roth
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Three exhibitions on view in San Francisco – Kara Maria at Anglim/Trimble, Claire Burbridge at Nancy Toomey and Isabella Kirkland at Hosfelt – test our ability to do so. All deal with the natural world, but their approaches couldn’t be more different. Taken together, they magnify and make urgent the question of how to regard nature now that the virtual life has all but eclipsed it.
Of the three, Maria’s, which depicts mass extinction, is the most hard-hitting – and, perhaps, the most relevant. Her action-packed canvases look like mash-ups of urban graffiti and cartoon fireworks. If you have difficulty locating her animal subjects in the chaos, well, that is by design. Their diminutive stature, says the San Francisco artist, reflects “what’s happening already” as humans, in their heedless destruction of everything, turn animals into hapless victims in a war they didn’t initiate. Dwarfed by their unfamiliar surroundings, they stare out at us with a disarming innocence, seemingly unaware of the dangers that threaten to engulf them. Maria likens her approach to “creating a stage set” where the “animals deliver a monologue about themselves and a world” where “there’s no proper context because their context has
been altered or degraded or taken away entirely. It’s terrible, but it’s also fantastic: We have television, we have virtual reality, we have airplanes, and we have all the food we can eat. But at the same time, it’s this total tragedy.” To look is to implicate yourself in that tragedy. The artist communicates this by painting creatures (insects, fish, whales, big cats, birds, snails, reptiles) with Audubon-like verisimilitude. She stages them against a backdrop of stains, squeegee pulls and Op-ish arrays of circles and geometric shapes: stylistic remnants of the artist’s evolution from abstract painter to activist.
One event that set her on this course was a 2014 residency at Recology, the San Francisco city dump. The ability to freely scavenge from the city’s waste stream gave Maria a close-up view of “the truly insane volume of material that is thrown away every single day, just from our one city.” The other was reading Elizabeth’s Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” a catalog, essentially, of human folly. Like “an audience entertained by a magician,” Al Gore wrote in his review of the book, “we allow ourselves to be deceived by those with a stake in persuading us to ignore reality.” Kara Maria’s paintings warn us away from the deceivers.
Scotland-born artist Claire Burbridge, whose works arrived here fresh from an exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Ore., takes a different approach. Invoking the nostalgic romanticism of the late 19th century, she draws the flora surrounding her home in Ashland. Trees, blossoms, seedpods and other life forms undergo fantastical juxtapositions that push her works to the edge of hyperreality. An eight-foot-tall drawing of birch trees, for example, combines lichen and multi-colored fungi — two things you probably won’t find growing side-by-side in nature. Another picture, Sirens 2, shows branches sprouting pastel-colored lichens that look crossbred with seedpods or sea anemones. Several of the drawings exhibit a preternatural glitter as if encrusted with tiny jewels. It’s all a bit too Tolkienesque for my taste. But I can easily imagine subscribing to such views because I once did. For a short spell when I was a child, my family lived in a forest near Fort Lewis, Washington. I remember seeing moose in the hours before dawn, just yards from my bedroom window. Nearby, I found obsidian arrowheads. I spent days in trees, amassing a pinecone collection. I also remember, during that period, 1959-60, visiting a lake on the Olympic Peninsula that looked every bit as primordial as the Eden described to me in Sunday school. Decades later, in an attempt to repeat that experience, I was sickened by the sight of clearcutting smack up against the highway. It was hardly my first such experience. That said, I salute Burbridge’s virtuosity and imagination because, who knows, somewhere out there, maybe even in Ashland, such visions might still be viable.
Isabella Kirkland, a Bay Area scientist/artist who paints her findings with equal precision, hews closer to reality. I’ll not describe her practice in any detail since Renny Pritikin already did so in his review of the exhibition. What merits reiteration is that the best part of it involves the meticulous portrayal of creatures too small to be fully apprehended by the naked eye, which the gallery displays in a vial with an attached magnifier. So, what at first glance appears to be an art exhibition turns out to be a full-on natural history lesson, told by taxonomic paintings and texts that explain ecological interdependencies few outside the sciences would imagine. What gives it bite is knowing that some of these amazing creatures are extinct or well on their way to becoming so. Whether we choose to embrace that fact and act upon it will likely determine our fate and that of all other living things.
That is why, for artists, the decision about how to portray nature has become so fraught. Geoff Manaugh, in a catalog essay for The Altered Landscape, a 2011 exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, framed the issue this way: If you’re making a field recording in a forest and an airplane flies overhead, do you turn off your microphone or do you leave it on? He suggested a middle position, somewhere between off and on. But I wonder. Can such a middle position even exist?
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Kara Maria: “Regarding Extinction” @ Anglim/Trimble Gallery through June 26, 2021.
Claire Burbridge: “Here and in Between” @ Nancy Toomey Gallery through June 30, 2021.
Isabella Kirkland, “The Small Matter” @ Hosfelt Gallery through June 12, 2021.
Cover image: Claire Burbridge, The Five Elements, 2020, pigment pencils, graphite, pen and ink on Arches paper, 48.5 x 48.5 inches
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.