In the Silence and Minutia of the Birds
|Fred Tomaselli, Woodpecker, 2009, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
gouache, acrylic, photo collage and epoxy resin on wood, 72″ x 72″
I love talking about birds in my Art Appreciation classes, though with a focus very different from from the current SAAM (Smithsonian American Art Museum) exhibition, “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art.” The exhibition’s message is about man’s relationship to birds, with the accent on environmental issues. My class talks about birds in flight, to symbolize our human aspirations. Flying birds remind us that humans can soar even if we don’t literally know how to fly.
|Chris Allen, A Grand View, 2010, Stone, beads, fetish
Photo from Pinterest, Bonin Smith
This exhibition and another excellent exhibition called “Bead,” at GRACE (Greater Reston Arts Center), honor the minutia of creation in thousands or millions of the small details that make up the birds. Both exhibitions are breathtakingly beautiful, must-see experiences, though their purposes are not at all similar. There’s only one week left to see the SAAM show, and almost two left weeks until “Bead” ends on February 28. Two of the 15 artists in “Bead” included birds, but the show also features well-known national artists such as David Chatt and Joyce J. Scott. There are many other masterful and surprising interpretations of beads. A pair of birds sitting on top of Chris Allen’s beaded stones is called A Grand View. Beads are skin for the timeless stones of the earth and Allen’s construction is a metaphor for relationship of body and soul. (Chris Allen reminds me of both a blog I wrote before and the great sculptor I admire, Brancusi.)
Back at SAAM, Fred Tomaselli’s Woodpecker, is a large painting, but its smallest details are mesmerizing. Three of his other large paintings are also in the exhibition, all densely patterned. Tomaselli, originally from Santa Monica, California, recalls growing up with bright colors of Disneyland, but also is quite a naturalist, a bird watcher and a lover of fly fishing. Today an exhibition of his work opens at the Orange County Museum of Art.
|Ingrid Bernhardt, Chic Chick, 2014, 5″ x 6″ 4″ papier-mâché, beads and feathers|
As in Woodpecker with its beautiful details, there’s a dedication to perfection in Ingrid Bernhardt’s Chic Chick at GRACE. It’s a papier-mâché bird with added beads and feathers. Tons and tons of the tiniest beads make it very intricate. From the fallen feathers, the artist has made some beautiful earrings which lie beside the bird. It’s quite a novelty and something special to behold. Bernhardt compares her beading technique to the pointillism of Seurat and all the dots of color he used.
|Laurel Roth Hope, Regalia 63 x 40 x 22 in.
© Laurel Roth Hope. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris
|Laurel Roth Hope, Carolina Parokeet, crocheted yarn on
hand-carved wood pigeon mannequin, Smithsonian
American Art Museum
Laurel Roth Hope is also concerned about the environment and biodiversity To celebrate certain species that are now extinct, she crocheted sweaters that mimic the coats and plumage of these lost birds. One, Carolina Parokeet, is in the SAAM’s permanent collection. Others in this group include the Passenger Pigeon, The Paradise Parrot and the Dodo. She used her hands to crochet sweaters in beautiful, tiny variegated colors and pattern. Much love goes into her creations. At the same time, we think of so many cultural concepts: beauty, pride, artifice (fake nails and fake eyelashes, loss, death. We ask ourselves: What does the outer coat (outer beauty)mean? What does pride mean if it bites the dust in the end? At the same time, the artist is giving tribute and memory to something that is lost.
|Laurel Hope Roth, Beauty, detail from the Peacock series photo from the website|
John James Audubon was America’s master artist of birds. Walton Ford is similarly a naturalist who works with combination techniques–watercolor, gouache, etching, drypoint, etc. He breaks with Audubon with his complex allegorical messages, however. environmental messages, however. Also among the 12 artists in the Smithsonian show, several are bird photographers.
|Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
watercolor, gouache, and pencil and ink on paper
40 x 60 in.
The Cartin Collection
Image courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery
|Tom Uttech, Enassamishhinjijweian, 2009, oil on linen, 103″ x112″ Collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas
© Tom Uttech. Image courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York. Photo by Steven Watson
Traditionally in art, birds in flight show contact between man and divinity. A bird symbolizes the Holy Spirit. In African and Oceanic cultures, the birds tie a living person to his ancestors. Only one of the artists I noticed at SAAM, Petah Coyne, sees her birds as the travel guides, the conduit between heaven and earth. Her elaborate black and purple sculpture is called Beatrice, after Dante’s beautiful guide through Purgatory, in The Divine Comedy. It’s about 12 feet high, and is dripping with birds and falling flowers. The beautiful work must be seen in person to be appreciated.
The many manifestations of birds reminds us of all the roles they fulfill: the silent and the singing and the flying. We end up with a new, profound appreciation for nature, and the hope to protect its beauty, birds included. These exhibitions helped me to see the vastness of this world, as well as the minutia of its details.