A Twist on Audobon’s ‘Birds of America’ in New Paintings by Penelope Gottlieb
After receiving her BFA from the Art Center College for Design in Pasadena, Penelope Gottlieb went on to earn her MFA from the University of California in
Santa Barbara where she currently lives and works. Gottlieb’s artistic repertoire is
thoroughly modern and includes innovative paintings as well as compelling media design, for which she received an Emmy in the field of motion picture title design in 1993.
Gottlieb’s more recent works showcase a unique synthesis of her modern graphic design background and the vintage botanical renderings of natural scientists. However, her paintings are also unique in their perspective on the traditional floral still life. Stylized flora and fauna are depicted as emanating from a comic book explosion, illustrating what the artist refers to as “the dire state of the planet” as faced with species extinction and the resulting biological and ecological ramifications. These violent representations of the artistically typified placid natural
world are intended as “visual eulogies for lost plant life.” The particular specimens that Gottlieb depicts are in fact extinct and she is able to recreate them only from
historical drawings and botanist’s descriptions.
Although avant-garde and aesthetically unique, Gottlieb’s paintings delineate clear
influences from the renowned artists of Pop and Expressionist art. The composition of many of her paintings is reminiscent of Kandinsky’s canvas-filling
outpours while her bold color palette and black outlines recall Lichtenstein’s comic book panels. Her work is also closely related to a more contemporary group of artists, including Alexis Rockman, Rachel Berwick, and Mark Dion, whose pieces
also illustrate a coalescence of art and science. Gottlieb’s paintings ultimately serve as acknowledgments of brutally lost nature, but simultaneously capture the power of the imagination and a hope for renewal.
Penelope Gottlieb upends the genteel conventions of 19th-century nature illustrations, repurposing a taxonomic style of drawing to address environmental crises. Her highly detailed, large-scale compositions recall John James Audubon’s illustrations of birds and flora, but suggest a sense of violence done to the environment with their squirts of red ink and plants’ tendrils binding birds. In other work she incorporates similar subjects but adopts a more psychedelic style, with bursts of floral color in comic book-style explosions. Although the images veer toward the absurd, Gottlieb draws on scientific imagery, rooting her work in serious ecological concern. “They are metaphors for loss; for all the things one tries in vain to retrieve; for anything that’s truly gone,” she has said. “My life’s work is to research and record the lost plants of this planet. Animal extinctions are big news, but people forget about the plants.”
American, b. 1952, Los Angeles, California, based in Santa Barbara, California