Kara Maria’s exhibition, Precious and Precarious: Life on the Edge of Extinction, was partly inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2015 book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which details how human activity has instigated a projected degree of species loss unequaled since an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs along with many other kinds of life about 66 million years ago. The difference between this extinction and the previous five is not only that we humans are to blame but that we are present to anticipate, witness, and document the event – unless we stop it. Maria’s vibrant works serve as a weirdly joyful and kinetic rendition of this impending animal death, perhaps akin to the second line in a New Orleans jazz funeral. We mourn the passing of these mysterious and irreplaceable creatures in the form of a parade – in this case, a parade of images.
Each of Maria’s paintings, which range in size, are a riot of colors, shapes, textures, and techniques and include a single detailed, nearly photo-realistically painted figure of an endangered animal. Say their names: Ohlone Tiger Beetle, Brown Pelican, Tule Elk, Grizzly Bear, Polar Bear, Blue-throated Macaw, Indiana Bat, Western Lowland Gorilla, Green Sea Turtle, Hawaiian Tree Snail, Blue Whale, Honduran Emerald Hummingbird, Whooping Crane, African Elephant, Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, Whale Shark, Monarch Butterfly, Honey Bee. Often, these solitary animals are quite small and easy to miss, immersed as they are within eye-snaring abstract backgrounds. These animals look peaceful, unconcerned or unaware as shapes and splashes surround and threaten to swallow them. That there is only onespecimen in each picture underscores the fact that there is no ark on which to load them by two-by-two; there will be no more of their kind.
In his essay Why Look at Animals? John Berger argues that Descartes’ separation of mind from body began the process by which humans devalued other animals with whom we have much – though certainly not everything – in common. Centuries later, the industrial revolution transformed our sense of animals from co-presences in a shared world to disposable accoutrements of the “receding past.” Akira Lippit has written extensively about how, as actual animals rapidly go extinct due to habitat loss and other human abuses, we fill our lives with ever more virtual animals – stuffies, figurines, videos, emojis and avatars. (“Put a bird on it!”)
One could conceivably read Maria’s work as complicit in this practice. A painting from the series could easily be installed as a decorative piece in a corporate boardroom. Their Pop Art-feel and the exquisite rendering of each animal make these paintings easy to enjoy. However, as a group, they tell a somber story about the represented species’ permanent passage into the virtual realm.
Inspired by Japanese woodblock printing, the aesthetic root of manga and anime, Maria’s work necessarily exhibits a cartoonish quality. Although cartooning might seem inappropriate to the subject of mass extinction, cartoons are how most people are likely to encounter animals other than as food, pets and pests. Most of us have already traded actual animals for animation. Yet, here each animal is de-animated. Maria’s animals are frozen, the backgrounds seemingly more active than the specimens themselves, which appear taxidermic in their precision.
In Post-Nature (Honduran Emerald Hummingbird), the small bird is almost impossible to locate amidst abstract explosions of paint. A bluish tendril that might be a rendering of a synapse or a Dr. Seuss highway swerves through the visually assaulting yet spectacularly engaging non-space of the canvas. Within this layered field of stimuli, had I not been searching for it, I might have overlooked the tiny bird with its green-tinted wing perched on a splotch of paint. What, the painting asks, is left for this lone creature when all its markers of home have been annihilated?
The Sea, the Sky, the You and I, (Blue Whale) is similarly disorienting. Against a royal blue backdrop, variously-sized polka dots in purples, reds, and other blues layered on one another create an unstable sense of depth and scale. This might be a galaxy or a swarm of bubbles underwater. A swirling line through the middle of the painting leads to a dark floating figure: a perfectly drawn blue whale, which appears to be the lone survivor, trapped within this impoverished simulation. Fittingly, the title references Miles Davis’ All Blues, whose lyrics written by Oscar Brown Jr. remind us that the blues are the dues of living, bearing witness to the violence, destruction, and stupidity we are seemingly powerless to stop or transcend. The blues artist recognizes the absurdity of the world yet continues to sing. Hence, perhaps, Maria’s commitment to painting these creatures with such care and attention at their moment of evolutionary catastrophe can be seen as a way of singing the blues by a different means.
Indeed, Maria’s paintings must be read as satires. Hayden White once wrote, “The satirical mode of representation signals a conviction that the world has grown old.” Like philosophy itself, “Satire ‘paints its gray on gray’ in the awareness of its own inadequacy as an image of reality. It therefore prepares consciousness for the repudiation of all sophisticated conceptualizations and anticipates a return to a mythic apprehension of the world and its processes.” Maria’s paintings recognize the absurdities of our era, namely that even though scientists have excellent ideas about how to slow climate change and heal the damage we have done to our ecosystems, we as a collective – as a species – cannot figure out how to work together. As a result, countless other species are going to be no more. These pretty, playful paintings are indictments, epitaphs-to-be.
According to Greek myth, the god Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of seeing the future but – when she angered him – added the caveat that no one would believe her. She saw terrible things coming, including her own death, but could do nothing to stop them. That, it seems, is the plight of the artist and intellectual in our own time; we see what is coming but are unable to change the course of events. Maria’s work cannot stop us from trading life for its poor imitation; she can only make us pause to look closely at the astonishing miracles we are allowing to disappear. Her oeuvre stands as a sorrowful goodbye.
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Kara Maria: “Precious and Precarious: Life on the Edge of Extinction” @ de Saisset Museum to June 11, 2022.
About the author: Jaimie Baron is a professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.