I became enthralled with the work of Penelope Gottlieb three years ago when encountering her bold, colorful paintings of extinct flowers. On large canvases, bright and lush explosions of intricately detailed flowers, leaves and other plants seemed simultaneously suspended in space while moving in a sense of urgency. On closer inspection other items emerged from behind petals like syringes, fungi and suffocating thorny branches: symbols of birth and the ensuing inevitable decay apparent in the natural world. After meeting the artist and coming to learn that her portraits were carefully researched and imaginatively reconstructed portraits of extinct species of botanicals, I was captivated even more.
When I discovered she was currently showing another series of these paintings in Los Angeles I decided to engage her in a dialogue about this important and poignant work.
Tell me about the moment you became interested in bringing extinct species back to life?
I started researching plant extinction out of curiosity and concern. I had heard about a rapidly worsening and exponential rate of extinction, affecting species worldwide. This alarming realization prompted my interest in the excavation of their loss. I guess the “A-ha” moment came when I realized that many of these lost botanicals had not been visually documented, and that they existed only textually as descriptive botanical field notes. This indelible “invisibility” and absence fascinated me. I realized that I wanted to attempt to summon them back to life, for one last time, through an act of re-imagining. I decided to imperfectly resurrect them on canvas by deconstructing the words as best I could and translating them into imagined paintings, knowing full well that the plant I imagined would not be a perfect facsimile of what once lived. This inevitable elision in the project exposes the disconnect and futility of my attempts: the impossibility of reversing ultimate and finite loss.
Why did you feel this was important?
I felt it was important because it’s a subject that doesn’t seem to get much press. I had no idea how serious the situation was, or what the ultimate ramifications were, until I began this project. Scientists and Botanists agree that within the next 100 years 50% of all plant life will be lost. The unrelenting extinction rate is alarming. All that is extant will be affected by this loss, and nothing is exempt. If you think of life on this planet as a kind of pyramid, plants are at the foundation of this structure, and all other living things depend on them for survival.
How many settings has this work been shown in so far?
Through October 27th, I have an exhibition of this work up right now at the Edward Cella Art + Architecture gallery on Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles. I have exhibited the work at the Michael Kohn Gallery, the Heather James Gallery in Palm Desert, California, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the Cynthia Reeves in New York, at Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis Parsons, and at Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara, California. My work is also currently featured in IGNITE! The Art of Sustainability, which is touring through 2012-2015. The work is also in the permanent collection of LACMA, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole WY.
Aside from the art world, has your work been recognized in any botanical or environmental-related forums?
Last year I exhibited the work at Lotusland, an amazing botanical garden in Montecito, California. I was the first artist ever to exhibit at that venue, so it was a great honor. Their mission statement is plant conservation and education so it was a perfect match. The work is activated in compelling ways in a botanical context.
Your art oftentimes has important social messages, what compels you to make your art matter in this regard?
I want my artwork to reflect what I think is important, and to be relevant to the conditions of the contemporary world in which I live. Otherwise I’m just making pretty pictures of flowers. The aesthetic devices that I use in my work are all mobilized towards the interpretation of botanical loss, and the dynamic invocation of its seriousness and complexity. This visual dynamism is driven by affect and anxiety. I want these works to be powerful imperatives, and impossible to ignore. They are about uneasy combinations of beauty and content. If there is no meaning or purpose to the work, it’s just superficial mark making. I spend a lot of time in my studio, and it needs to be dedicated to something I feel is worth the investment. The work is motivated by thought, content, and personal passion, a subtext I hope is apparent in the layers of the work.
What are some experiences that have been profound for you stemming from the creation of this particular project?
When I lost my mother the work took on new meaning. The flowers became a metaphor for loss of all kinds. The social and personal valence of loss infused the project with new dimensions.
How has this project affected your personal life and your own considerations towards the world around us and how we consume/live within it?
It has made me more sensitive to the fragility of existence. It seems that every day I read about another battle lost on the Green front. I feel sensitized to the irrevocable, in a way I may not have been before. Loss is a complex combination of the condition of impermanence, combined with the finality of a permanent end result. I think my work reflects my anxiety.
What are you working on now?
Immediately next is a vacation! I’ve been working non-stop for about a year and a half. My husband and I are planning a trip to Vietnam, and will hopefully visit some botanical gardens along the way. I am also looking forward to creating new paintings that will continue to eulogize lost plant species, as well as working on my other paintings of non-native invasive plants, works that are painted over and into 19th century prints by John James Audubon.
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY KIMBERLY NICHOLS
Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine and has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation where she was also a member of the NewPoetry Collective. She is currently at work on her novel King Neptune’s Journey and an art work titled The Fool. She has recently embarked on a journey of study in shamanic and medicine lore and wisdom under a series of respected teachers. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.