The Re-enchantment of Art: Jacqueline Bishop’s Imaginary Landscapes

…What is completely spontaneous in man as he touches
the earth is an immediate feeling of familiarity, sympa-
thy, or even veneration, of a filial kind.
Because earth is matter to the highest.
So, then, veneration of matter: is anything more fitting
for the spirit?
Whereas spirit venerating spirit…can you see that?
—One sees only too much of it.

Francis Ponge

Jacqueline Bishop’s paintings, installations, and works on paper probe the complex relationship between ecologically fragile systems and humans. Similar in tenor to the poet and philosopher Ponge’s close examination of “things” her works are intimate observations of the world around us with strong political and social dimensions. Bishop’s depictions of nature and close analysis of flora and fauna recall 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish still life paintings with surrealistic and often exotic overtones.

Her stylistically unique rendering of flowers, birds, and trees, for example in Of This World, are not meant to be scientifically accurate—but appear to be so prompting viewers to move in close, to have contact with the birds, plants, nests, insects and trees. Industrialization has changed the way we live and overpopulation and commercialization has caused many of us to lose sight of delicate eco-systems that support all life. Bishop’s work in the exhibition Against the Tide uses the vehicle of water, a vital source of life, to poetically explore local and global environments, connections between humans and non-humans, migration, and the delicate balance of existence in a commercially driven world.

The necessity to focus human consciousness on the impact of commerce, technology and industrialization has been the inspiration for writers, artists and activists since the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating in the 1960s Environmental Movement. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Feminist Movement furthered this cause and challenged social awareness. Authors such as Suzi Gablik in the Reenchantment of Art warned readers and artists that “remaining aloof has dangerous implications.” [1] She called for artists to reject the autonomy of art stating that “there are no longer any sidelines.” Carolyn Merchant’s ideas in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution focused our attention on the shift from a cosmos centered organic view to a scientific machine worldview—questioning the scientific revolution at the cost of nature and women. [2] Her idea that “The world we have lost is organic” has become a touchstone for Bishop and is in part why she has created a host of “imaginary landscapes.” She states that “our indifference to the natural world is creating undesirable environments.”

Fueling much of Bishop’s previous work and those in the exhibition is a strong belief in biophilia and the interconnectedness of natural, living systems to humans—a belief that has taken her across the globe to developing countries including Latin America and parts of Asia. In the Brazilian Amazon with Ornithologist Andrew Whittaker, Bishop encountered lush but endangered habitats of rain forests, flowers, birds, and the “son of the forest” seringueiro (rubber trapper) Chico Mendes. Bishop recounts that Mendes “understood the language of the animals, plants, rivers, and men…and felt, thought and spoke as an authority of nature.” As an environmental activist and union leader, he strongly questioned Brazil’s clamor for economic prosperity which was destroying the land at astounding rates and further impoverishing indigenous people. Tragically, Mendes’ life was cut short when he was assassinated on December 22, 1988. This event and Bishop’s connection to it has greatly informed much of her art, philosophy, and activism.

Bishop’s painting World View, 2009 calls our attention to natural cyclical processes and the interconnectedness of species and humans by depicting a tangled orb-shaped web of creatures and plants including hummingbirds cut off below their wings, fish that cannot swim and an open-mouthed monkey who howls at the world in front of him. Luscious peaches, plants, insects, or parts of them, and un-hatched speckled eggs are intertwined in the branches and roots of a tree. On first glance these animals, insects, and plants nestle together, but on closer inspection, the wholeness is broken—hummingbirds have lost parts of their bodies, a small rabbit jumps into nothingness, and a tree grasps its own fruit as it floats away from the earth. Small silhouetted birds fly overhead fleeing to or from an unknown source. Unique to this work, is the inclusion of a small seated female figure tightly holding the branch of a tree and an empty nest in her lap. She seems to witness the loss of habitat and the world fleeing from itself.

In similarly themed paintings such as Forest, World Journey, and Procession Bishop depicts trees, birds, boats, and our lonely planet itself adrift in vast seas in refuge from fiery shorelines. For Bishop and art historically these elements hold rich symbolic meaning. Nests and trees symbolize protection—they support natural processes, plant life, and are sanctuaries. Birds have been used literally and symbolically as messengers and simultaneously refer to death and rebirth. Bishop prompts us to ask how the animals in her paintings can survive in devastated and disrupted ecosystems. The thematic recurrence of birds has much to do with her experience living through Hurricane Katrina. She recalls that immediately following the hurricane her most haunting memory was “the deafening silence. There were no birds for days.” Significantly Bishop places animals, plants, and our world in boats—they are in transition and their destination is unknown.

Full of birds, lush vegetation, and deep blue water, Bishop’s painting Queen Bess Island addresses the complexity of our ecosystems and our responsibility to them. This barrier island in Barataria Bay, Louisiana is home to once endangered Brown Pelicans or Pelicanus Occidentalis. In 1990 the “Queen Bess Island State Restoration Project” began constructing a dike to reverse or at least halt further erosion. Seedlings of Black Mangroves were then planted and the ecosystem was slowly fostering pelican repopulation. After the BP oil spill, the island and hundreds of pelicans and other wildlife were coated in thick black oil. In the painting, black silhouetted birds hover above pelicans nestling in the landscape. Bishop often includes silhouetted black birds in her compositions. While they represent what one sees at the end of the day when specific features of birds or trees are difficult to discern, they also eerily represent the charcoaled birds from burning forests and oil spills. In this work, Bishop confronts the ecological issues of Queen Bess Island in a hopeful yet cautionary way. Unlike Forest, Journey, and Procession, there are no burning shorelines, however it is clear that the pelicans have little space to exist; they quietly sit among fruit, flowers and an endless sea.

Water is the obvious theme in Against the Tide and Bishop’s personal and artistic world is full of water. While in Brazil, she camped out in the igapos or flooded forests, which are ecologically similar to the bayous and swamps of Louisiana where she lives. Much of what she has observed in nature has been by boat. In her painting Procession, black birds fill the crimson sky among billowing clouds of black smoke. Dominating the composition, white-tipped waves carry a half submerged world and a boat named Orquidea containing a deer with a barren tree growing out of its back. They are in exile from the crimson burning shore. Fittingly Orquidea or orchid is the name of the boat Bishop used in Brazil to observe tropical orchids, boats being the only way to observe certain species. She says, “For years I hunted orchids in my canoe in the Amazon with binoculars, never took one, just wanted to see them. I like the fact there are over 30,000 orchid species in the world and little is known about them except their beauty.” In her painting Embedded the orchid dominates the picture plane and assumes a monumental quality—a strength and virility. In reality, this flower is reliant on the fragile eco-systems around it.

Bishop’s work presents a new nature—one that answers the call from Gablik among others to create new forms that “emphasize our essential interconnectedness.” Her works uniquely and vibrantly combine social activism, metaphor and aestheticism in layered complex ways and ask us to shift our worldview. Befittingly, Against the Tide closes on the anniversary of Chico Mendes’ death. In her book, Em Memoria Chico Mendes, she states, “There is a certain acceptance of devastation even though there are many new ecological organizations creating awareness for biodiversity. It is a new landscape. A new nature.” Bishop presents a new landscape—one that memorializes the interactive cycles of nature and delicate eco-systems and obligates us to maintain and nurture them.

Dr. Laura M. Amrhein Associate Professor of Art History,
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

[1] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 5.
[2] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980) 1.