In Lisa Ericson’s nature tableaux, land animals make unlikely bedfellows with coral reefs, and small mammals, birds, and bugs inhabit islands borne across waterscapes on the backs of turtles. The works are simultaneously natural and unnatural — Ericson’s hyperrealistic and detailed painting style renders her subjects beautifully and identifiably, but the situations in which we find them are uncanny, menacing, and unexpected.
“Ultimately, I’m trying to awaken or increase interest in the natural world around us, with all its beauty and complexity, while simultaneously drawing attention to the fact that our human behaviors are currently throwing all of that incredible diverse life into peril,” Ericson explained in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Along with our own existence, of course.”
Ericson’s creatures often find themselves battling a rising tide, with a waterline bisecting the picture plane. Animals cluster together atop cacti to stay dry or begin to blend with the world below the surface. In “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a mountain goat seeks fleeting refuge from chest-level water, perched atop a crag inhabited by coral and visited by ocean fish. In “Late Warning,” a desert jackrabbit is situated uncomfortably atop a flowering cactus, getting an earful from a yellow-bellied bird sharing its precarious perch. These mammals cast side-eye glances at the viewer, seeking solidarity, or perhaps placing blame for the position in which they find themselves.
Balancing “the tension between worry and hope,” Ericson aims to portray the richness of our planet while bringing attention to its imminent disappearance.
“By creating these pieces, I’m doing the same thing I hope my viewers are doing — personally reckoning with the immense scope of our global climate disaster,” said Ericson. “Appreciating the intricate beauty of the stunning array of life and biodiversity that we’re still lucky to have on this planet, and considering the tragedy of its decline due to changing climates, habitat loss, and mass extinctions.”
Parlaying nature scenes into teachable moments or unlikely team-ups, as in “Risky Business,” which portrays a flock of birds using a red fox as a ferry across knee-deep water, is just one of the reasons that Ericson’s work has the feel of parable or Aesop Fables — though she can identify numerous points of inspiration, within fine art as well as literature. She points to “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch and books like Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood as inspirational narratives around manipulations of the natural world, but it’s easy to find points of resonance in the cautionary tone of folklore, or even creation stories that position the world on the back of a tortoise.
Ericson’s work has evolved over time from chimera-like scenarios featuring animal-habitat hybrids to what she describes as “dystopian pairings of animals and habitats” that comment on the climate crisis. The works speak to the ultimate interconnectedness of not only the human family, but of all creatures within and affected by the environment.
“We (humans) are having such a drastic impact on the natural world and all its inhabitants,” she said. “And we’re bringing about climate change that will be inescapable for most life on the planet. So in this way, at least, we are all very much connected.”