Wing and a Prayer: Birds in Contemporary Art

December 12, 2014

Eye Level had a chance to catch up with Joanna Marsh, the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art at American Art, for a conversation about our current exhibition, The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art, which is currently on view through February 22, 2015.

Eye Level: Why Birds? Why now? Is there a resurgence in depicting birds in contemporary art?

Joanna Marsh: The exhibition is inspired by, and coincides with, the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The story of these birds has captivated ornithologists and artists for more than a century. Paintings, poems and personal accounts vividly describe their mass migrations and their rapid disappearance. But the lure of the passenger pigeon is just one facet of a deeply ingrained cultural connection to birds. The interplay between human and avian life abounds in literature, philosophy, science and spiritual thought through the ages. Nowhere, however, is mankind's interest in birds more evident than in the visual arts. The steady rise in environmental consciousness over the last several decades has led Americans of all backgrounds to focus more on our connection with nature. In the contemporary art world, the emphasis on birds is actually part of a larger preoccupation with natural history, ecology and climate change.

EL: How do more traditional (romantic?) depictions of birds, say from the 19th and 20th centuries, differ from what appears in the exhibition?

JM: Many of the artists in The Singing and the Silence draw inspiration from more traditional depictions of birds, such as 19th century naturalist illustration and 20th century wildlife art, but their work extends the boundaries of these earlier genres, which are most often characterized by realistic imagery and anatomical accuracy. The artists in this exhibition aren't concerned with the faithful depiction a bird species, at least not exclusively; nor are they solely preoccupied with the ornithological significance of their subjects. Instead, they focus on the relationship between mankind and the natural world, weaving together a myriad of references, from socio-political commentary to literary and religious allusion. That's the most important difference between the artworks in this exhibition and other forms of avian imagery.

EL: In 1914 we lost the passenger pigeon, and 50 years later, Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964. How do these two landmark dates help frame the exhibition?

JM: I think of these two environmental anniversaries as markers in our journey from conquest of the land to conservation of it. In the context of the exhibition, they serve as conceptual bookends. The show begins with two works, one by James Prosek and the other by Rachel Berwick, which serve as memorials to the passenger pigeon. These pieces are somber reminders of our impact on the American landscape. But the exhibition isn't simply a meditation on loss. It is also a celebration of the diversity of life that still exists in our country and the many ways we can access that wonder. That's why the exhibition concludes with a luminous painting by Tom Uttech, which showing a forest teeming with wildlife. The scene is imagined but it's not a fantasy. The wild landscapes that Uttech depicts survive today because of environmental reforms like the Wilderness Act.

EL: The artists in the exhibition work in a variety of media. Can you discuss some of the more atypical, perhaps in the work of Laurel Roth Hope or Petah Coyne?

JM: Both Laurel Roth Hope and Petah Coyne create evocative sculptures that illustrate the diverse possibilities of non-traditional materials. Coyne's elaborate installations makes use of a lengthy list of materials, including such unorthodox things as cast-wax statuary, taxidermy animals, hat pins, chicken wire, velvet, and the black sand from pig iron casting. This assemblage of unexpected materials is echoed in the work of Laurel Roth Hope whose elegant peacock sculptures are created from a similarly improbable set of materials—fake fingernails, barrettes, Swarovski crystal, and nail polish, all mounted on walnut pedestals.

EL: Art has always intersected with other ideas and disciplines. How have the artists explored the intersection between art and science?

JM: That's a really broad question. The entire exhibition is a cross-disciplinary project and each artist approaches that intersection in a different way.

EL: The exhibition seems to have found a perfect home in the Smithsonian. Are you collaborating with any other units?

JM: Yes, primarily through public programming. On January 13, we're offering a tour of the exhibition that I'll lead jointly with Dr. Pete Marra, director of the Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center. Dr. Marra was one of the scientists who contributed to "The State of the Birds Report" released this fall. For the gallery tour, Pete and I will discuss the artistic and ornithological importance of several works in the exhibition.

For a more in-depth look, view images online from the exhibition.


Recent Posts

Sculpture of a woman. Massive antlers on her head cradle a delicate, translucent adult figure in a fetal position, like a creature preparing to emerge from its cocoon. Scattered on the ground below are antlers.
Exploring the personal transformation reflected in her artwork Rouse.
An art conservator holds a vacuum nozzle on a piece of artwork.
A peek into the world of conservation and the meticulous care of James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.
Photo Anna Nielsen
Anna Nielsen
Conservation Program Coordinator
Eliza Macdonald
Katya Zinsli
Detail of illustrated portrait of Emma Amos.
Painter, printmaker, and textile artist Emma Amos created colorful multi-media works that explore themes of identity.