Endangered Species: Artists on the Front Line of Biodiversity

Endangered Species presents the work of sixty artists from around the world who convey both the wonder and fragility of life on Earth through the exploration of five separate themes.

Nick Brandt; Line of Rangers Holding the Tusks of Elephants Killed at the Hands of Man, Amboseli, from the book Across the Ravaged Land, 2011; Archival pigment print, 44 x 78 in. Courtesy of the artist.

September 8, 2018 – January 6, 2019

Curated by Barbara Matilsky, Whatcom Museum Curator of Art

Endangered Species presents the work of sixty artists from around the world who convey both the wonder and fragility of life on Earth through five interconnected themes. Spanning two hundred years, the exhibition reflects the vital relationship between art and natural science. It also highlights art’s pivotal contribution to the legacy of nature conservation, which is now threatened. The artist’s message is more important than ever.

A calendar of tours, lectures, films, and other related programming is available here

For more information, see the bibliographytimeline, and list of artists in this exhibition. A complete illustrated exhibition catalogue is available for purchase at the Museum Store.

Martin Johnson Heade; Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle, c.1875–1890; Oil on canvas, 24 x 31.5 x 4 in. framed. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, 2010.67.

first theme

Celebrating Biodiversity’s beauty and Complexity:

from landscapes to microscopic imagery

We focus on artists who illuminate biodiversity’s stunning variety on its most grand and intimate scales. By examining the shared practices that inspire artists and natural scientists, such as exploration, observation, and documentation, visitors can learn about biodiversity and its importance.

Additional images related to this theme are available here.

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

CHARLES DARWIN

On the Origin of Species, 1859

Charles Knight; Wooly Mammoth and Hunter, 1909; Oil on canvas, 27.5 x 39.5 in. Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History, New York.

second theme

MAMMOTHS AND DINOSAURS:

interpreting natural extinction

We introduce the concept of extinction—the complete loss of an animal or plant species. When natural scientists first discovered fossils of early life, nineteenth-century artists presented convincing visions of animals roaming primeval habitats in best-selling natural history books and panoramic murals commissioned by museums. The exhibition showcases examples of these illustrated books and paintings. The work of scientists and artists who interpret naturally occurring extinction helps us contemplate the consequences of the current unraveling of biodiversity.

Additional images related to this theme are available here.

Why has not anyone seen that fossils alone gave birth to a theory about the formation of the earth, that without them, no one would have ever dreamed that
there were successive epochs in the formation of the globe.

GEORGES CUVIER

Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals on the Surface of the Earth, 1825

Harri Kallio; Les Gris Gris #3, Mauritius, from The Dodo and Mauritius Island, Imaginary Encounters, 2004; Archival inkjet print, 29.5 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist.

third theme

PORTRAITS OF LOSS:

extinction by human actions

We explore how artists transform scientific documentation about early human-induced extinctions of species such as the dodo, the great auk, and the passenger pigeon, among others, into stirring portraits and still life paintings. Their artworks reflect meticulous research and observational analysis of specimens from natural history museum collections. By reviving past life in sometimes startling ways, artists imprint their memory on our consciousness and spark awareness about the contemporary extinction crisis.

Additional images related to this theme are available here.

How can you expect the birds to sing when the groves are cut down?

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

Life in the Woods, 1854

George Catlin; Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie, 1832–1833; Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 in. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

fourth theme

ENDANGERED SPECIES:

plants and animals on the edge of survival

We examine threatened ecosystems and the global decline of biodiversity. The artworks call attention to just a few of the 10,000 endangered and critically endangered species classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Artists heighten public awareness about the current condition of life and environmental distress through their artworks, and they offer a unique form of communication that taps into the core of human culture—beauty and emotion.

Additional images related to this theme are available here.

Every seed is awakened and so has all animal life.
It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, And we therefore yield to our neighbors, Even our animal neighbors, The same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.

Attributed to SITTING BULL (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake), Hunkpapa Lakota

Jason deCaires Taylor; Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA), 2011; Video (photographic detail). Courtesy of the artist.

fifth theme

AT THE CROSSROADS:

destruction or preservation of biodiversity

Contemporary artists not only portray animal and plant species at risk, they also interpret the human actions that lead to their precarious status: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and over-hunting and fishing. Artists are at the forefront of working with scientists, museums, policy makers, and citizens to envision new and creative strategies for enhancing life and restoring the essential bond between people and the natural world.

Additional images related to this theme are available here.

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress at great speed, but at its end lies disaster.

The other fork of the road, the one “less traveled by” offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. The choice, after all, is ours to make.

RACHEL CARSON

Silent Spring, 1962

Major funding for the exhibition and catalogue has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and The Norcliffe Foundation with additional support from the City of Bellingham,  Whatcom Museum Foundation and Advocates, Alexandre Gallery, and Heritage Bank. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.

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