Art Gone Avian

Are birds making a contemporary-art comeback? A TMA exhibit makes the case

One cold winter day three years ago, artist and avid birder Mark Dion led two New York Times writers on a bird quest through the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Outfitted with binoculars, hiking boots and jackets loaded down with bird guides and notebooks, the trio set out to find as many painted bird species as they could. They gave themselves just four hours for the search, and confined themselves to the American and European galleries. As they raced through the marble hallways, startling more conventional art visitors, they tallied up bird after bird after bird.

A quail in a Breugel. A red grouse in a Chardin. A quetzal in a Frederic Church. And even an extinct, if unnamed, winter-adapted bird in Leutze's famous painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware."

Birds, it seemed, were everywhere in the art of the ages, from the "junk bird" white doves of early Christian art, too numerous for the birders to count, to the rarer Impressionist parrots of the late 19th-century French. And now, a new exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art makes the same surprising claim for the art of today. Art has gone avian.

In a catalog essay for the traveling show Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists Aviary, curator David Rubin asserts, "Over the past two decades, contemporary artists have focused their attention on birds and bird culture in seemingly increasing numbers," using birds for exploring everything from death to identity.

Who knew?

But Rubin's proof is in the pieces. He's assembled a delightful, ornithologically oriented exhibition that even has a soundtrack: artist John Salvest's birdcalls playing over and over.

Salvest had done an impressive shop of warbling, providing a soundscape for his "Fly," a wall piece that mimics birds sitting on telephone wires. This being a show of contemporary art, Salvest is not shy about using off-the-wall materials. He lists among his media not only real cables, but also "mounted sparrows." As in real sparrows. Dead sparrows. Taxidermically preserved. Twenty-five specimens sit on the wires, arranged so that their bodies spell out the word "fly."

The other 45 artists in the show (Tucson's own Kate Breakey made the cut) are equally adventurous. If you go on a materials hunt in the museum, imitating Dion's bird trek through the Met, you'll find more dead birds, guns and even marijuana leaves. You can also find Dion's own bird-watching clothes.

His installation "Costume: Bird Watcher" lovingly assembles his telescope and tripod, his folding stool, his books and backpack and coat. No birds, though, which might be an environmental comment in and of itself, as species decline in numbers or even die out. In exhibitions in the past, he's brought in his own flocks; at a show in Belgium, according to the Times reporters, his 18 live African finches flew freely around Antwerp's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Here, dead parakeets will have to do. Carlee Fernandez's cheerful "Blue Parakeets With Branches," an elegant arrangement of stuffed corpses among the boughs, aims to uplift taxidermy's déclassé reputation.

Coyly listed as just plain "leaves," the pot leaves in Fred Tomaselli's "Golden #3" are part of an elegant collage of bird photos pulled from a bird guide. Tomaselli has painted it to look like a medieval tree of life. Museum notes tell us wryly that whatever Tomaselli did in his youth, nowadays he gets his high from "seeing his leaves and pills in lively colors and patterns."

More somberly, Jeffrey Cook memorializes some friends slain in a drug melee in "Song of Silence." A pair of weapons is on a pedestal, aimed upright, and the guns' handles have metamorphosed into bird heads. They're bowed and black and solemn, fitting mementi mori.

Some artists stick to more conventional media, making pretty bird paintings or sculpted bronze birds, but, naturally, with an ironic twist suitable to our times. Ann Craven's "I'm Not Sorry" is a beautifully painted oil on linen picturing three plump birds on a branch, all of them lit from above. But two of her birds are a fantastical bright pink, and the cherries in the background are out of focus. It all looks a little like a hokey greeting card; Craven is gently poking fun at the aesthetics of popular culture.

Even the hallowed John James Audubon comes in for some ironic treatment. Walton Ford paints skillfully in the Audubon style, in watercolor, gouche, ink and pencil. But a closer inspection reveals that his finely rendered macaws and ibises are hardly behaving themselves. The decorous ibises of "Compromised" are indecorously mating.

And Amy Jean Porter has reduced the fowl of Audubon's Birds of America into a couple hundred small watercolor cartoons, pinned scrapbook-style to a wall. Each one of his noble birds is identified by name in her "Birds of North America Misquote Hip-Hop and Sometimes Pause for Reflection," and each is singing a line from popular music, written in a cartoon bubble. The Wilson's plover warbles "What's Love Got to Do With It?"

Rubin argues, not entirely convincingly, that all these avian artworks fall into one of four thematic categories: "satiric gaming," the "humanity of all living things," "mortality, remembrance, loss and transformation" and "identity and autobiography." Certainly these themes can be ferreted out in these works--Porter is satire; Cook is mortality and loss--but why jam each work into a single category? It becomes a distracting game to see which label he gives to which piece.

Now at the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans, Rubin was once upon a time contemporary curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, where he won acclaim for other one-theme contemporary shows. One riskily looked at flags in art, the other at rock 'n' roll.

Even with the evidence of this show, I'm not entirely convinced that birds are resurgent in contemporary art--you could probably do an equally comprehensive show on some other theme of your choosing. Horses? Dogs? Car parts?

Still, Rubin has done a laudatory birding job, collecting every imaginable species of avian art. It's telling that a time when nature is in flight, human-made bird cages outnumber nature's nests in his show. And it's impossible to dislike his choices.

Take Les Christensen's inventive spoons taking flight. Her "Flight From Servitude" is a pair of stainless steel wings, painstakingly crafted of thrift-shop teaspoons. Rubin puts this piece in his mortality category, but I find them joyous. The spoons have given up their workaday jobs, stirring the tea, measuring the sugar, and found a new life, soaring, birdlike, out into space.