RECLAIMING NATURE: THE INVASIVE PLANT SERIES
Penelope Gottlieb
 
The “Invasive Plant” series appropriates and significantly alters existing print plates from the John James Audubon archive. In these paintings, I reconsider the iconic 19th century imagery by girdling the Audubon birds with tightly woven bands of invasive plant species. The images stage an invasion of this historical imagery, enacting the ravages of a contemporary ecological phenomenon wherein non-native species are introduced into an environment and overtake the balance of its delicate ecosystem. By problematizing the  renowned ornithologist’s idyllic representations of natural history, I present a revisionist vision of nature in its current state of compromise and literal bondage.
 
This project evolved from my recent series of images based on the re-imagining of extinct plants. The imagery for these works was created primarily in the absence of existing visual specimens or documentation, and thus became a project of resurrecting loss through absentia. Through a combination of research and logical reconstruction, I recreated these lost botanicals as a sort of visual requiem. In both projects I augment and denaturalize the representation of “nature” through a juxtaposition of dissonant techniques, signs, and symbols to indicate the presence of a critical consciousness. The incorporation of intentionally disjunctive imagery is intended to convey an awareness of the ecological basis for the phenomena - invasiveness and extinction. Both bodies of work are intended to provoke a critical consideration of natural imagery in this problematic contemporary context, and in direct opposition to the historical tradition of its representation as passive and inactive.
 
The “Invasive Plant” series evolved directly from this research into botanical extinction. I discovered that invasive plants are one of the top 3 reasons for plant extinction, the others being loss of habitat and the effects of global warming. In addition to the threat that they pose to native plants and ecosystems, invasive species also disturb water tables, use converted forestland, and increase danger from wildfires. Where I had been involved in  the reconstruction of lost botanicals, I now wanted to focus on the appearance and impact of these all-too-healthy species that I now understood were damaging our environment through their invasive thriving. As my interest grew in this new subject, I realized that the images would need a different look from the elaborate, explosive views I had produced of the extinct botanicals. It was then that I reexamined Audubon’s bird prints from a fresh perspective, and just as importantly, started to research the imagery and its progenitor.              
 
John James Audubon occupied a complex position vis a vis the natural world he sought to capture, and the taxonomy he made his life’s work. He lived at a time when nature was abundant, a time that predates the contemporary pervasiveness of extinction. Audubon and other naturalists of his era routinely consumed the nature they documented. Famously, Audubon said that “a day without shooting a hundred birds is a day wasted.” In order to have models for his images, Audubon stuffed bird carcasses with wire and cotton and posed the temporary taxidermy into “lifelike” positions. The painful paradox of Audubon’s work remains that his wonderful images of nature relied on its ghoulish and insatiable exploitation.
 
Reflecting on the ignorance of this invasive human attitude, and still seeking the appropriate form for my exploration of invasive species as a subject, I arrived at the idea of appropriating Audubon’s work. I decided to “invade” some of his prints with my additions, thus blurring the boundaries between the two coexisting iterations and enacting the very exploitative process Audubon himself expounded. I took images by Audubon which I discovered were the direct result of his literally ruinous study of nature, and I introduced invasive species into them, thereby turning the aggressive force of “nature” onto itself. The works become layered metafictions that self-consciously draw attention to both the invasive attitudes of human annexation and to the ecological crisis of invasive species - an undeniable result of human activity that itself enacts the consumption of its worst exponent: man. 
 
In these new hybrid works, Audubon’s stuffed birds become stand-ins for the self, and for the fragility of life under environmental siege. The birds are strangled by the growth that overtakes them, and become visibly subjugated by an external force. While the subject matter is conflicted, I knew from my development of the extinct plants series that it was important for the work to be seductive in order for it to be effective; for it to invite the viewer in for a second read, to surprise people, and to evoke a complex emotional response. To these ends, I have added several other iconographic elements to these images, the most unusual  of which being a number of kinbaku knots. Kinbaku is the Japanese art of erotic knot tying; literally a form of man-made bondage. I have also included some non-invasive plants from my own garden, as well as signs and symbols in the form of vanitas, much as I have done in my extinct plant paintings.
 
The works unfold gradually, with several competing layers of information. The elements of beauty, unease, and surprise coexist in order to draw the viewer into an active reading of this literally colonized image space. The titles I have given to each of the paintings are simply the names of the invasive plant species depicted. In many instances, I have painted the invasive plant’s name over the original caption on the print: literally overwriting the existing history as presented by Audubon.
 
It is my intention with this body of work to awaken some of the conflicting feelings that lie hidden beneath the surface of our inherent attitudes, and those inured by our inherited representations of nature and history. In this way, these altered plates seek to compel a more critical understanding of our world, and of the roles we play as artists and as people living in it.  

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