“For the Birds” is a title with potential. Taking into account David Smith’s wrought iron ornithological sculpture, Alfred Hitchcock’s chilling aviary masterpiece, and most recently Santiago Calatrava’s soaring project for the PATH station at Ground Zero, birds have provided a departure point for art that veers from the sublime to the scary. Unfortunately, ArtSpace’s latest stab with the loaded symbol has produced nothing so effective.
Artspace attempts to accomplish two things and has little success with either. In the catalog that accompanies “For the Birds,” curator Denise Markovish explains that when selecting which artists to feature in her show, she “chose the artists who [she] felt had a connection to birds, who in varying degrees had that obsession within them.” She also asked all of the artists a series of questions, listed in the back of the catalog. “Do you self-identify as a birdwatcher?” reads one such inquiry. Though only half the artists represented in the exhibition identified themselves as birdwatchers, Markovish’s organizing principles might have predicted the final product feeling more like a bird appreciation festival than a cohesive art show. Though it clearly tries to be art about birds, the show can better be described as rather bland art that incorporates birds.
Karl Unnasch, one of the 32 artists on view at ArtSpace from now until March, has contributed three-dimensional pieces consisting of stuffed bird bodies arranged along with found objects. I particularly liked one such sculpture, the decomposing body of a seagull arranged with small model conifer trees appearing to grow out of the corpse. The piece piqued my interest because Unnasch successfully combined disparate objects in pursuit of a unified, conceptual goal: the decomposing body of the seagull had returned to the earth, lending new life to the trees that flourish on top of it. The work was refreshingly clear, eschewing the “difficult for the sake of being difficult” approach that can make art so unappealing to its viewers.
Ambreen Butt showed two untitled drawings, both depicting a woman against a light blue background, standing with a swarm of birds at her feet. In one version, as a phallic shape descends from the top of the picture into the woman’s mouth, the birds swell up towards her body from the base of the canvas. The effect is of water in a vacuum. Butt’s drawing is rife with violent energy. The blue background provides a flat, vacuous space — breathless and asphyxiating in its totality. The woman seems on the brink of being swallowed up into the ocean, or threatened by an ocean of space that she’s being forced to swallow. So effective was this first drawing that I couldn’t help but feel disappointed when I examined Butt’s second work. This time, the woman appeared to lead the birds off into the distance, unaware of or ignoring their menacing potential. The scene was the stuff of Snow White and the enchanted forest; all of the intense emotionality of the former piece was drained from the composition.
I liked Rebecca Doughty’s cartoonish drawings, especially the one entitled “story #3 (birds on wheels).” In contrast to Butt’s drawing, they were charming without being sacchriny. Most importantly, Doughty’s childlike, unsteady hand bore no resemblance to the simple-minded illustrations in a nature magazine.
Despite the handful of redeemable works, in the end the show did not enhance my appreciation for birds or aviary art.
“For the Birds” runs until March 20. One should not give up hope for ArtSpace, which from time to time produces exhibitions truly worthy of a visit. This spring’s “John/Jane Project” seems promising. The mixed media installation takes over two adjacent bathrooms. It is amusingly wicked, particularly in the somewhat misanthropic room entitled “Self-Loathing Tangent”. Now if that isn’t a cliff-hanger of a description, I don’t know what is.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1150″ ]