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Artful Ornithology

Apple's Aviary: Knee-deep in fowl feathers

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.

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.

Kiki Smith, daughter of sculptor Tony and sister of photographer Seton (the three were the subject of a group show last year at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art), has incorporated bird imagery into her work for more than a decade. Here, she weighs in with Three Crows (1995), a silicon bronze sculpture created to pay tribute to some birds the artist learned had died from pesticide poisoning.

The loss of many entire species is the subject matter for Jacki Apple's Aviary of the Lost #3 (The Culture of Disappearance #5) (1995/2004), a multimedia work that's one of several installations Apple developed to explore the "loss of cultural memory." It's an experiential piece that invites museum visitors (two at a time) to remove their shoes and step into a narrow passage filled knee-deep with the downy feathers of waterfowl.

Inside the vaguely claustrophobic space, which features a "ceiling" fashioned from nesting materials, you'll hear a loud, unsettling recording of the sound of wings furiously flapping. You'll also feel and smell the feathers as you wade through them.

But most important, you'll be able to read the words printed in chalk and pencil on the makeshift walls. On the left are surprisingly lengthy lists of species of birds that are now extinct. To the right are passages describing the circumstances of their disappearance.

The once-abundant passenger pigeon, for instance, passed into extinction in 1914 thanks to treatment such as this: "...suffocated by burning grass or sulphur below their roosts... fed grain soaked in alcohol... batted down with long sticks, blasted with shotguns, or netted, after which their heads were crushed with a pair of pinchers. Some were used as live targets in shooting galleries." Another large multimedia installation, Pam Longobardi's 1614-1914 (A Disappearance of Wings) (1993), also focuses on the unfortunate passenger pigeon.

The exhibition is broken into four groupings of related works, although many of the pieces in the first three sections -- "Identity and Autobiography," "Mortality, Loss, Remembrance, and Transformation," and "The Humanity of All Living Things" -- could easily fit into more than one category.

The final section, "Satirical Gaming," provides a little levity, a welcome counterpoint to the seriousness that characterizes much of the rest of the show. Here, you'll find, among other things, Amy Jean Porter's wonderfully irreverent Birds of North America Misquote Hip-Hop and Sometimes Pause for Reflection (2002). Porter, the only artist in the show who's under 30, has created 321 paper postcards of various sizes, each with an ink and colored pencil portrait of a bird spouting one of the misquoted hip-hop phrases of the title.

My favorite piece in the exhibition is Les Christensen's deceptively simple Flight from Servitude (2001), a sculpture that consists of thousands of stainless steel teaspoons that dovetail to form a pair of gigantic wings sprouting from the wall. Like the best of "Birdspace" -- one of the strongest, strangest shows of the year so far -- it's a dramatic melding of the realistic and the fanciful, the whimsical and the majestic. "Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists Aviary" On display through August 15 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.


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