Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 22, 2015

It's funny how some times I'll have expectations for a show, that it will be good, or bad, or will feature certain types of art.  I thought this would be Audubon prints and large scale paintings from the 1800s, but I could not have been more wrong.  The vast majority of the works in this show are modern - in some cases, very modern.  There's a lot that's wild and a lot that's weird and an enormous amount to like. The wall notes at the beginning of the show describe birds as "winged wonders that surround us daily," and I think winged wonders is a great way to describe this show.

My favorite artist on display is Fred Tomaselli.  The colors he uses are wonderful, and his work has a psychedelic quality to it.  In addition to paint, he uses leaves from his own garden in his work, which provide a touch of realism amidst the trippiness of his efforts.  I found myself thinking that, if I owned one of his paintings, I could look at it a very long time before I would stop finding elements I hadn't noticed before.

Of course, what catches the eye immediately is the giant sculptures (if sculpture is the right word, and I'm not sure that it is, but I can't come up with any other word that's better) by Petah Coyne.  They're very tall, with taxidermied birds and squirrels.  They look vaguely like trees, but also vaguely like big piles of flowers - you really have to see them to appreciate them.

Then there's Laurel Roth Hope's birds, made of human adornments - earrings, barrettes and fake fingernails.  Somehow, using these unlikely materials, she manages to convey the movement of the birds; you almost expect them to rise up and fly away.  And there's a set of extinct birds, most of the ones in the Lost Bird Project.  They're pigeon mannequins, with sweaters knitted in a pattern showing their coloring - a reminder to appreciate the wonders of nature before they vanish forever.

Finally, I must mention the mural outside the exhibit space.  It's a recreation of the end papers in Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.  I can remember my parents using this book frequently to identify birds in our backyard when I was a child, and the mural brought it all back to me.  It's great to have a personal connection to art, to have it remind you of a part of your life you had forgotten.

Verdict: This is the best show I've seen in a long time, and I recommend it highly.

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