By Benjamin Morris via Pelican Bomb
Apocalypse is a curiously diverse phenomenon. For some, such as the ancient Mayans, it is cyclical and recurring. For others, such as adherents to the Abrahamic faiths like Christianity or Islam, it arrives at a single moment in time—namely, the end of time itself. And for modern dystopian novelists like Margaret Atwood, Suzanne Collins, or Cormac McCarthy, it is a catastrophe not so very far away—likely within this century, almost certainly within two. For another breed of visionary, such is the artist Jacqueline Bishop, apocalypse is no distant event signaled by the streak of a comet across the sky or the rise of an insurmountable microbe. It is already upon us. And in her visions, we are the architects of our own demise.
Bishop’s long career in working at the intersection of environmentalism and visual art includes not just Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, which inspires much of her work, but a longstanding relationship with Central and South America and the rainforest conservation work of the late Brazilian rubber-tapper Chico Mendes. Close to home, Bishop’s imagery has always focused on native flora and fauna, painting them with a mixture of close, attentive realism and wild, exuberant surrealism, not unlike a latter-day Hieronymus Bosch. And similar to The Garden of Earthly Delights, in much of Bishop’s work, looking at her paintings is like reading a sentence in which we recognize the words but don’t understand the grammar. Her vocabulary involves placing known species of birds, rabbits, raccoons, and other animals in landscapes whose topography is so disturbed as to be alien. We see only remnants of a natural order corrupted by modernity’s invasion, coercion, and exploitation. Eden after the fall, the gate left ajar.
For viewers who would shun such artistic invention as preachy, it is important to note that Bishop’s passion for ecology is directly linked to her environmental restoration efforts in Louisiana and the tropics for years. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, her work only escalated in intensity, though Bishop readily admits to finding herself “shell-shocked,” like many, in the wake of the storm. As if Katrina’s ravages were not enough, after the BP oil spill in 2010, her interest became even more personal. While doing volunteer wildlife remediation at Grand Isle State Park, Bishop was inadvertently exposed to the dispersant chemical Corexit through a pair of contaminated swamp boots. Shortly after her exposure, the skin on her feet began to disappear—a condition that, Bishop says, lasted for weeks before she began to heal.
Starting as far back as the 1990s, when she regularly depicted vines encircling and entwining other plants and animals, entanglement has been a signature visual motif for Bishop. In recent works, her trees are literally built out of fish or birds (as in Before the Storm, 2012), piled on top of one another in such masses as to create trunks and roots, and to spawn even more birds from their branches. For Bishop, birds and trees and other organisms are not just dependent upon one another (for survival, for habitation, for reproduction), they are so entangled as to be almost indistinguishable within a given landscape. The metaphor is true to life. Such depiction mirrors relationships in the natural world—some trees only reproduce via bird-dispersed seeds, and everyone knows the most likely place to find a nest—but Bishop recasts this understanding against the backdrop of a world so ravaged, so flooded and upended, in such total disarray, that it has lost all resemblance to our own.
Take, for instance, the pivotal painting World Journey, 2011, which sets examples of the flora and fauna of the Louisiana coastline aboard refugee boats, floating on an unknown sea—possibly the sea left behind by the vanished wetlands or any sea facing such extensive erosion. (In Bishop’s work, the specific and the general collide and mingle like ice cubes in a glass of water.) Far from home, these animals and plants are struggling to survive amid the floodwaters, but unlike the Biblical story, which offers the promise of security and redemption, each animal is here confined to its own ark, sometimes without a mate, and certainly with no sign of land anywhere near. The only feature on the horizon is a waterspout: in effect, another storm. If the birds-as-trees and fish-as-trees in this and works like it can be taken as zoomed-in perspectives on a much wider event, then Bishop is more accurately depicting a species-level extinction crisis, where not even those animals best equipped to survive a deluge stand a chance. But the story of apocalypse is not told in paint alone.
Incorporating mixed-media elements in other works, Bishop uses found and artificial materials to close the distance between the viewer and the natural world. Black Memoria, 2010, consists of baby shoes, fake birds, and real bird’s nests in a large-scale floor installation shaped like a fallen, corrupted wreath. And in Thou Art My Rose, 2013, Bishop mixes silhouette-like forms and scavenged newspaper from the countries of her travels (Brazil, India, Bangladesh) to create a richly symbolic work on paper, including one of her classic, barren, Medusa-like trees creeping throughout.
Viewers may ask whether her portraits are essentially gloomy, or whether there is any measure of hope for these landscapes and their residents. While only time will tell, 2013 could prove to be a pivotal year, with the potential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a high-profile lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority against 97 oil and gas companies, and the legislation over Louisiana’s coastal master plan reaching its final form in Baton Rouge. But if Bishop’s work thus far is any indication, the outlook is only dimming without radical intervention. In one of her first paintings this decade (World Journey), the earth itself was afloat in a refugee boat like the other organisms. In every painting since, however (Procession, 2012; Columbus and the World, 2012; and Before the Storm), it seems to be barely staying afloat.