Since the 1990s, Walton Ford has been retrospectively caught up in the nineteenth century’s obsession with nature, back when the mountains were crawling with lions, and the sky was full of birds. His new series “Barbary,” on display at Kasmin’s new gallery in Chelsea, is a study of the Barbary lion. Ford is never interested merely in the natural world, but in the way humans have documented, exploited, and repurposed it, and how these species have been mythologized, even as most of them have disappeared from the wild. Ford makes paintings of paintings of animals.
This year, After Man was republished, a book by the Scottish geologist Dougal Dixon that imagines how other species will evolve after humans go extinct, fifty million years in the future. It’s a premise that has aged well, as anxiety over our long-term damage to the planet grows; the book has been reissued a dozen times since its publication in 1981. Dixon’s taxonomy is far from comprehensive (he neglects the oceans, plant life, and insects) but as a thought-experiment, After Man is an effective primer on evolutionary genetics and natural selection. Still, he sometimes wonders whether people see his work simply “as picture books of funny animals.”
Young people dressed in bright puffer jackets and pom pom hats were accompanied by older chaperones, some wearing buttons and stickers, and holding signs that conveyed simple messages of urgency: Protect kids, not guns, Books not bullets, and Arms for hugging, not for killing (in the uneven crayon scrawl of a seven-year-old named Henry).
Ernst Haeckel’s intention was to make the natural forms of elusive organisms accessible to artists, and supply them with a new visual vocabulary of protists, mollusks, trilobites, siphonophores, fungi, and echinoderms. In his first book are jellyfish that look like flowers, protists that resemble Fabergé eggs, presented like crown jewels on black velvet, the seeming cosmic vastness of the images belying their actual, microscopic size. Haeckel’s name has not endured as well as the words that he coined—among them, phylum, ecology, and stem cell. But artists took heed. Art Nouveau is crowded with the natural arabesques and patterns that seduced Haeckel.