A Twist on Audobon’s ‘Birds of America’ in New Paintings by Penelope Gottlieb
When ranking the world’s most valuable books, it’s been said that copies of naturalist-adventurer John James Audubon’s The Birds of America would constitute a whopping five of the top 10. The massive tome includes 435 detailed depictions of birds, and has sold for more than 8 million dollars at auction. While the volume’s importance to ornithology and the history of taxonomy is undoubted, its high price tag surfaces questions about how we value Audubon’s winged subjects themselves—six of the birds Audubon catalogued in the 1800s are now extinct.
It is this sort of foreboding discrepancy that provokes artist Penelope Gottlieb’s meticulous, often ominous, paintings of flora and fauna. In an exhibition of new work at Heather James Fine Art, Gottlieb applies painted interventions in the form of invasive plants to found Audubon reproductions. By incorporating species that are not only foreign to Audubon’s original drawings, but also unnatural to the birds’ habitats, Gottlieb introduces a cross-pollinating critique of ecological sustainability.
Appropriating a style almost identical to Audubon’s own, Gottlieb’s additions first camouflage as unassuming. A closer look reveals parasitic relationships between plants and animals, as pretty, flowering tendrils strangle everything from parrots to falcons. In Rosa Multiflora and Lathyrus Latifolius (both 2014), vines succeed in binding enormous birds that are barely contained by the borders of the page.
Furthering Gottlieb’s taxonomic mix, she adds incongruous still life-inspired objects to the works. Tropaiolum Majus (2014) depicts a group of parrots being overtaken by a network of climbing flowers. Strands of jewels and watches add to the chaos, layering the scene with new art historical and cultural references. These man-made elements connect luxurious, frivolous distractions to environmental decay. More pointedly, they emphasize Gottlieb’s reminder that invasion can result in extinction.