Artful Ornithology

The Norton's "Birdspace" takes us to a sprightlier world

Do birds have any idea what extraordinary creatures they are? How could they not? No other animals are capable of flight and song. Just watch a bird in flight sometime and focus on how it luxuriates in its seemingly effortless ability to defy gravity. Or listen to a bird sing (mockingbirds are particularly good at this) and marvel at its vocalizations. Count amazing anatomy and plumage as a bird bonus.

Science, of course, provides elaborate explanations of bird appearance and behavior. But leave science aside for a moment and consider another explanation of why birds do what they do, one that's more suited to the realm of art: because they can. Birds are the creators and inhabitants of their own rarefied world.

It's no wonder, then, that artists are drawn to birds, as is amply demonstrated by "Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists Aviary," now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. This richly satisfying show didn't originate at the Norton -- it was assembled by the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans and will move on to museums in New York and Ohio next -- but let us be grateful that someone here had the good sense to snag it. South Florida's summer doldrums are considerably more bearable thanks to its presence.

Apple's Aviary: Knee-deep in fowl feathers
Apple's Aviary: Knee-deep in fowl feathers

Details

On display through August 15. Call 561-832-5196.
Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach

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The exhibition features 70 or so pieces by 50 artists, the vast majority of whom are Americans. Most were born in the 1950s and 1960s, hence the show's distinctly contemporary flavor. As the title indicates, however, the frame of reference is the great John James Audubon, whose multivolume The Birds of America, published during the 1920s and '30s, is one of the touchstones of bird-based art.

Audubon, the illegitimate son of a globetrotting Frenchman and a servant, was born in Haiti in 1785 and raised in France, where, he claimed, he studied with famous neoclassic painter Jacques-Louis David. Audubon's dual interest in art and ornithology -- he dabbled in taxidermy at a museum in Cincinnati -- paved the way for the 435 meticulously researched watercolors that make up The Birds of America. One influence was British painter Mark Catesby, whose Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands preceded Audubon's work by nearly a century.

Only a few of the artists in "Birdspace" maintain direct aesthetic ties to Audubon. Three pieces by Michael Crespo are small, delicate renderings of birds painted in oil on linen. They combine Audubon's attention to detail with his cool detachment to create an aura of serenity, as does David Kroll's Thai Vase, Apples, and Nest (1999), also in oil on linen. Another three comically titled, 2002, ink-jet prints by Martha Alf (the oldest artist in the show) use naturalistic color photography as a sort of family album that chronicles small landmarks in the lives of some ordinary pigeons: Baby Boy Jr. Debuts, Baby Boy Jr. in Setting Sunlight, and Taffy Watches Baby Girl and Baby Boy and Baby Boy Jr.'s Debut.

Other artists pick up on the violence of the natural world for commentary. The color etchings of Walton Ford, for instance, put a sociopolitical spin on Audubon-style imagery. In La Historia Me Absolverá (1999), he portrays a Cuban red macaw amid the traps the bird has eluded. The macaw is a stand-in for the tenacious Fidel Castro, with a twist -- the tropical bird is now extinct. Compromise (2002) uses mating ibises to comment on culture clashes involving European and African traditions. And Ford's Boca Grande(2003) is a mordant takeoff on Audubon in which several birds devour frogs. (Unfortunately, the painting, reproduced in the catalog, is one of more than two dozen pieces that were included only in the New Orleans version of the exhibition.)

Peter Edlund's Homage to James Byrd #2 (after J.J. Audubon) (2001) goes even further. It's an oil on canvas that more or less re-creates, in lurid reds and greens, an Audubon image of woodpeckers on a tree in the wild. Here, the birds are stand-ins for the white men who dragged Byrd, a black man, to his death in Texas in 1998. Edlund says he was inspired by a tattoo of a hooded woodpecker on one of the killers.

Acclaimed New York painter Ross Bleckner makes the political personal as well as metaphysical in Memorial I (1994), a large linen piece that, like some of the artist's AIDS-inspired paintings, seems to glow from within. Ghostly urns and doves seem to float on a sea of black, and Bleckner has etched the names of deceased friends into the surface of the image. Quiet Night (Recollection) I (1999), a large oil painting by Cuban artist Enrique Martínez Celaya, is a similarly enigmatic lament that features one of the artist's familiar pale, disembodied heads, this one bloodied and attended by a trio of hummingbirds.

A great many artists take another approach to their material, although an equally political one: the plight of birds themselves, both as individuals and as species. For Carpodacus Mexicanus, House Finch (2000), Australian artist Kate Breakey started with a gelatin silver photographic print she took of a dying bird found in her backyard, then lovingly hand-colored it with oils and pastels to create a haunting memorial. The large-scale image is enormously poignant and dignified.

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