Isabella Kirkland paints life-size renditions of newly discovered, rare, and possibly not long for this earth species.
Throughout my career in biology, I’ve often cited the Australian gastric brooding frog as a marvel of evolutionary adaptation: The mother frog swallows her eggs, develops her tadpoles in her stomach, and regurgitates them at maturity. Discovered in the 1970s, this bizarre frog was unable to adapt to changes in its environment and was known to science for barely a decade before becoming extinct.
Artist Isabella Kirkland’s meticulous oil paintings revisit this bittersweet tension between discovery and loss. Each life-size panel in her ongoing NOVA series includes dozens of species, from mammals and birds to insects and plants, all of which have been discovered by science in the past 20 years. NOVA: Understory (2007) depicts a sunlit paradise filled with 58 of these exotic new species, from the Panay cloudrunner to the sharp-snouted bush frog of Borneo, all reflected in a detailed taxonomic key. Understory is a celebration of biodiversity and a tribute to the enlightening power of science, but there’s a snake in the garden. Several continents’ worth of species appear crammed together, predators beside prey, ominously evoking the untenable concentration of species into dwindling islands of habitat. Kirkland’s previous series, TAXA, memorialized species endangered or driven to extinction by human activities. Understory prompts us to ask, will these species be next?
In many regards, the message of Understory is reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century cabinets of curiosities, rooms in which European collectors gathered rare and newly discovered specimens, arranging them in beautiful tableaux. Cabinets of curiosities demonstrated the wealth and power of their noble patrons and the successful imposition of taxonomic order on nature, and they served as tools for teaching and study. Just as curiosity cabinets were organized in idiosyncratic but logical ways that reflected the worldviews of their creators, Kirkland’s NOVA series groups together species from diverse geographic regions by habitat in order to emphasize their shared ecological plight. The branching tree at the heart of Understory, which resembles a phylogenetic tree or cladogram, reiterates the themes of order and commonality. And like the naturalists and collectors who filled the original curiosity cabinets hundreds of years ago, Kirkland, a former taxidermist, also traveled the world to study and sketch her subjects.