From Aesop’s Fables and medieval bestiaries to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Joseph Beuys’ dead hare, artists and writers have found powerful metaphors for the human experience in the animal kingdom, spelling out the ways of humankind in our most raw, instinctual and unselfconscious forms.
The bird, in particular, has its own rich tradition in the arts. Seemingly both of this world and not, these autonomous aviators represent what humans cannot accomplish on their own, and seem to have special knowledge as a result. Mystical and transcendent, they appear as arbiters of heaven and earth, yet their fragility makes them vulnerable and thus relatable and familiar.
This feathered class is the subject of Georgia State University’s Welch School Gallery‘s current exhibition, A Gathering, curated by Welch gallery director Cynthia Farnell. Although the show, which features Dozier Bell, Catherine Hamilton, Jane Rosen and Kiki Smith, is largely oriented toward the observational and traditional, it transcends its emphasis on representation. The sheer number of birds depicted, each quietly and articulately rendered, coalesces into a greater conceptual installation, the gallery humming with a feeling of animal consciousness.
If you’ve ever tried to draw birds, you might know, as pioneer artist-ornithologist John James Audubon did, the easiest way to render them is when they’re dead. The exhibition, which depicts many birds drawn as specimens of observation, unavoidably points to the image of the bird as one of fragility and defeat.
Smith, for example, enumerates dead birds as a lyrical code of sorts in her series Destruction of Birds, all appearing in stark isolated sequence with each other, as if part of some poetic rhythm of mortality.
She deliberately correlates bird imagery with aspects of feminine vulnerability. As she has said, “I’m interested in the symbolic morphing of animals and humans. I found this anthropomorphizing of animals interesting: the human attributes we give to animals, and the animal attributes we take on as humans to construct our identity.”
Her often grisly aesthetic is the dark foil to Hamilton, whose approach is brighter and more literal. Her watercolor field drawings are precise yet ephemeral, depicting birds as victims of man-made environments. Their delicately rendered bodies emerge from the surface of the paper, their limbs receding in space as the watercolor itself becomes barely visible.
Rosen’s Accipiter Series, a collection of stylized birds made of hand-blown pigmented glass, offers a more heroic characterization. Channeling the power and regality of ancient Egyptian bird-gods, such as the god Horus depicted as a falcon, these stout and lofty creatures appear as guardians of the exhibition.
Two jewels of the show are Bell’s charcoal drawings on mylar. Although these bird-in-flight landscapes are small and unassuming, their surfaces are delectably lush, and they surprise with brooding reverberation.
“Her moody landscapes evoke nostalgia for a time before language,” says Farnell of these works. “Each image is like a tiny window into the ancient human psyche.”
A Gathering, Farnell’s sixth curatorial project at GSU, is evidence that such straightforward conceptual parameters for an exhibition can yield penetrating results. The exhibition is on view through March 13.
On home page: Kiki Smith: Hail Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, lithograph; collage and wax stamp on paper. Courtesy Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston.