by Hiroko Yoshimoto with text by Ursula Heise
Biodiversity loss became a major concern among environmentalists in the mid-1980s. Since then, writers and artists have addressed the fate of individual endangered species as well as global scenarios of extinction in novels, poems, nonfiction, documentary films, photographs, paintings, and musical compositions, not to mention hundreds of websites. Most of these works are inspired by a realist impulse. They aim to move readers and spectators through details and data about the animal or (more rarely) the plant species they portray, creating aesthetic specimens for audiences to marvel at and mourn.
Hiroko Yoshimoto’s Biodiversity series of oil and watercolor paintings takes a strikingly different route. The works have none of the realistic detail of museum specimens or close-up shots, but rather resemble modernist abstraction. Bursts of clashing colors and palettes of subtly shaded ones evoke the vibrant fauna and flora of biodiversity hotspots such as rainforests and coral reefs. Varied shapes call up the enormous range of biological forms, from a single cell seen through a microscope and the texture of a sea anemone to the complex shadings of tree foliage and flashes of birds’ wings. The drawings in a naturalist’s notebook explode into cascades of color. Juxtaposed on flat pictorial surfaces without the illusion of depth that is typical of perspectival paintings, all of the organic objects in Yoshimoto’s works, from single cell to flower blossom, call on the spectator to give them equal attention regardless of their taxonomic status.
“The series Biodiversity reflects my ardent wish that life’s diversity would continue to flourish in the face of accelerated destructive forces created by human hand,” Yoshimoto writes on her website. “The seemingly infinite and wondrous diversity of life forms, like the microbes in a drop of water, inspires unique colors, shapes, and lines that then come alive on my canvas.”
Forms and textures that in the twentieth-century avant-gardes of Europe and Latin America called up the estranged environments of modernity—Salvador Dalí’s melting objects, F. T. Marinetti’s explosive battlefields, Wassily Kandinsky’s colorful geometries, Yves Tanguy’s mysterious plains, Wilfredo Lam’s sculptural jungle—metamorphose in Yoshimoto’s more organic imagination into celebrations of nature’s exuberance, and mourning for the parts of it that we are losing.
Biodiversity #25, 2012, 10 1/2 x 9 1/2 in., watercolor on paper. Yoshimoto painted Biodiversity #25 in two versions: oil and watercolor. The lighter and brighter hues of the watercolor version reproduced here playfully evoke the different scales of marine life. Small circular areas surrounded by dots and light shading might be colonies of tiny, plankton-like organisms or island archipelagos on a map. Elongated red shapes might be slugs or sea anemones, but they also recall the soft, fringed objects in some of Salvador Dalí’s surrealist landscapes, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931). Though none of the objects in the painting can be identified unambiguously, their combination evokes the sun-drenched colors washing around a tropical coral reef: schools of fish, colonies of algae, swarms of microorganisms.
Biodiversity #1, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel, collection of the Museum of Ventura County. Biodiversity #1 conveys a sense of life’s many forms through an exuberant explosion of color. Shapes strewn across the canvas suggest individual cells, single-celled organisms, sea anemones, or flowering plants, pulled together and propelled along by a horizontal color bar that evokes a fallen tree trunk or a rapidly flowing river around which life proliferates in multiple small environments.
Biodiversity #6, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel. Biodiversity #6 is even more radically decentered than other paintings in the series. Rather than showing recognizable organisms or emphasizing the idea of ecological stability, it shows the building blocks of life in exuberant motion. Cells, drops, stalks, and leaves whirl about in a dance that recalls Wassily Kandinsky’s geometric configurations, but moving in dynamic, unpredictable reconfigurations.
Biodiversity #10, 2012, 9 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., watercolor on paper. Biodiversity #10 plays on the conventions of the naturalist’s sketchbook. Painted on two sides of a ring-bound notebook, the watercolor painting takes up and transforms the parallel lines of the metal rings into parts of organic shapes—the ridged stalk of a vegetable, flower petals, segments of a sinuous worm or tuber. Writing technology morphs organically into the forms of nature.
Biodiversity #22, 2013, 30 x 60 in., oil on panel diptych, collection of the Santa Paula Art Museum. Biodiversity #22 can be understood as a riff on the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodblock print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (ca. 1830), as well as the bright colors and bold dynamics of contemporary manga. If the round window at the center suggests a vanishing point that should logically organize the perspectival lines, the streams and flows of color that surround it defy any depth of perspective. Instead, they evoke flows of water, slides of mud, the push of growing roots, the speed of birds’ wings speeding past. From these dynamic, chaotic flows and clashes of ecology and biology, the still center emerges as a moment of genesis in which land and ocean separate from the sky, and organic forms begin to arise.
Biodiversity #33/6, 2013, 24 x 24 in., oil on panel, collection of Community Memorial Hospital, Ventura. Biodiversity #33/6 is the sixth and last of a series called The Future of Life, which forms part of the Biodiversity collection. The darkest and least varied of this series in its shapes and colors, it suggests that species extinction might bring about a future return to a more elemental array of environments and life forms: rock, water, and perhaps lichens and mosses.
Biodiversity #68, 2015, 11 x 14 in., monotype on BFK paper. This delicately colored painting resonates with the landscapes in Yves Tanguy’s surrealistic paintings, which are populated by strange objects and figures. A landscape of dried-up shore, desert, and mountains here seems inscribed with the traces of past life—shapes that suggest skeletal remains, tracks, and scat—but possibly also new small organisms and vegetation.