The idea that half of Earth’s animals will become extinct over the next 100 years is, for many people, an abstract idea. It’s difficult to believe or understand the scale of what this will look like. No matter its seeming implausibility, it is nevertheless the prediction of many scientists. Perhaps it then makes sense that it’s from a creative mind that we find a depiction of this somewhat “unimaginable” future.
Artist Ripley Whiteside’s exhibit A Peaceable Kingdom – on display at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain – is a series depicting the various species that will survive to cohabitate alongside humans in the future. The result is confronting. The works carry that intrinsic mix of melancholy and wry humour that is reserved for negative consequences that are seemingly inevitable.
The works are very much inspired by Montreal and its natural and unnatural environments. Each illustration is named after different quarters of the city like Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Côte-des-Neiges, and Pierrefonds. The selected animals can be found on the island of Montreal – either in the wild, in pet stores, on Kijiji, or at the Biodome. Whiteside arranged the creatures in a sort of constructed reality. Seeing them positioned against various somewhat bleak backgrounds, one has the impression these unlikely companions have been thrown together under unnecessary and arbitrary circumstances.
Whiteside said in his artist statement, “I am interested in what should or should not be considered natural, and in how absurd this line of questioning can become.”
“These works were born in the complicated corners of nature’s meanings, in the places where we attempt to insinuate ourselves within the natural or insist on our separateness from it; where we take what is natural and in so transform it into artifice; where we fear the natural and unnatural alike, and where we temper those fears with stories,” said Whiteside.
Visually, he uses a series of techniques to bring the animals onto a more confronting plane. In many cases, the animals are depicted life-size. Though more imposing than this is the manner in which each animal meets the viewer’s gaze. Historically, the direct or returned gaze has held great meaning in Western art. For a long time the direct gaze, particularly the direct gaze of women, was something artists avoided. It was thought to displease viewers, male viewers, who preferred subjects to be looking away, making their bodies more visually accessible. Eye contact is thought to bring a more confrontational aspect to the character in question. Berger in his now seminal book, “Ways of Seeing” (1972), discusses how Manet’s Olympia was the first example of the female nude defiantly returning the viewer’s gaze. In her description of Whiteside’s work, Concordia University’s Julia Skelley refers to the returned gaze as signifying consciousness, agency, interiority, and potentially indicative of a soul. And it’s true that in the absence of words, a direct gaze is used to establish a connection and can be thought to force a sense of accountability into the consciousness of the viewer.
It’s also worthy of note that in nature wild animals rarely make eye contact for very long, if at all. Someone viewing an animal may meet eyes with one for an instant, but there is rarely sustained connection. Eye contact is often the first point in the initiation of a relationship between two individuals, the beginning of establishing contact. This facet of Whiteside’s work acts to greatly humanize his animals.
The environmental aspect of the artist’s series was inspired by Stephen M. Meyer’s The End of the Wild, a book in which the author outlines Earth’s biodiversity crisis. Meyer cites a current extinction rate of 3,000 species per year, and notes that if this continues half of all species will be extinct in the next 100 years. He argues that the surviving animals will be the “weedy” ones (pests and parasites), those that can survive alongside the environmental degradation caused by humans. It’s a tragic and disturbing idea that due to the actions of one species, ours, only the “weeds” of the animal world will survive.
Another strong influence for A Peaceable Kingdom is the work of Edward Hicks (c. 1825-49) and his series of the same name. Hicks’ work was firstly an expression of his Quaker ideals. He painted 61 iterations on the same idea – all inspired by a bible passage, Isaiah 11:6-8. It’s a passage depicting all animals, predators and prey, living together in harmony. In a practical sense, Hicks conveys this uniformity, or peace, through the use of colours within a restricted tonal range. This is a technique also employed by Whiteside. The significant difference between the two artists is that Whiteside’s work doesn’t contain the religious aspect that was very much a focal point for Hicks. Whiteside paints from a more animalist perspective.
In the gallery, the works – made from natural, homemade, and manufactured inks – are exhibited unframed, and pinned to the wall. There were minimal alterations made to the original state of the works. They appear almost as if they have just been removed from the artist’s studio. The strength of their message doesn’t need any embellishment.
A Peaceable Kingdom is exhibiting at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain from July 18 – August 15, 2015.