The Contemporary Arts Center's latest visual arts offering, Birdspace, A Post-Audubon Artists Aviary, sports an intriguing, even mysterious, title. It is also, perhaps, a little poignant. After all, Louisiana was once so closely associated with birds that it used to bill itself "The Pelican State." A pelican even graced our auto license plates -- but that was before DDT killed most of them off. Now they're back after years of official nurturing, if not quite in the same profusion as before.
And then there's the case of John James Audubon, the world's most famous bird artist, who lived here some 185 years ago. He's still a presence because his name appears so prominently, for instance, in Audubon Park, Audubon Place, Audubon Boulevard and Audubon Street, not to mention scores of private businesses and institutions. What other American cities have so many high-profile venues named after an artist? None that I can recall.
Still, we may wonder, what is a "Post-Audubon Artists Aviary?" In fact, Birdspace deals with Audubon's legacy updated to the present, but we can only wonder what that means in an art world more obsessed with theories and concepts than with anything warm blooded. Although bird watching is a hugely popular pastime, the postmodern art world has long shunned nature, so a serious show focusing on birds is about as rare as a sighting of a Carolina Parakeet. It just don't happen -- or, at least, not until now.
Apparently, things may be changing. A stroll through the CAC's galleries reveals an arresting array of work by high-flying artists from all over America and the world. And one is struck with not only the prominence of some of the names, but also the variety of the offerings. Clearly, birds have come a long way in art since Audubon. It is said that artists reflect the submerged dreams, ideas and yearnings of society at large, musings that haven't necessarily made it to the surface. Artists express what cannot be readily said in words, so the presence of birds in so much recent work suggests the standoff between art and nature may finally be evolving after years in a cerebral deep freeze.
Early hints of this appear in some of the older pieces, for instance, in New York City art star Ross Bleckner's eerily beautiful Memorial, 1994. An 8-by-10-foot canvas of a night sky where white doves and silver urns appear suspended in space, Memorial continues a series Bleckner began in the 1980s in response to the AIDS crisis. Death, of course, is nature's ultimate trump card, and while pandemics like AIDS and SARS are reminders of life's fragility, birds have long symbolized the human spirit. But New Orleans artist Jeffrey Cook offers a different take on a related theme in his powerful, African fetish-inspired assemblage Song of Silence. Here two wooden rifle stocks bound in tarry rope and studded with mementoes are topped with the heads of birds bound with dark cloth over their eyes, in a memorial to friends who were "murdered in a brutal, drug related incident."
Les Christensen's Flight From Servitude is powerful yet ethereal, and enigmatic as well, a pair of outstretched silver wings, 4 feet across, emerging from the wall. And if something about them seems familiar, it may be because they were actually fashioned from hundreds of stainless steel spoons. Flight is a monument to the urge to be free, the oldest, most universal inspiration attributed to birds since Icarus. Even so, as befits a show with section titles such as The Humanity of All Living Things, birds appear in many contexts and circumstances.
For instance, Michael Crespo's Treasure of the Cave is a richly realistic painting of a small warbler perched on the rim of a Buddhist offering bowl, in an allegory of birds as winged messengers. Elizabeth Shannon's Cohabitation features a rubber tire framing a photo of tires at the Almonaster dump. A bird's nest inside the tire and a taxidermed blackbird atop it embody the uneasy relationship between nature and consumer culture. In the work of Karoline Schleh and Monica Zeringue, birds symbolize personal evolution, rising above one's conditioning.
Still, the tone is often elegiac, in keeping with the sense of nature as endangered. In Jacqueline Bishop's Silueta, a veil of dead birds hangs over drawings of indigenous flora and fauna, a commentary on the fires that have incinerated much of the Amazon rainforest in recent years. If that sounds somber, we are reminded that the symbol of rebirth is the phoenix, a bird that arises from its own ashes. Like the phoenix, Birdspace is both a memorial to the lost and a celebration of life -- the desire of all living things to flourish and be free.
- Les Christensen's Flight From Servitude, part of the CAC's Birdspace exhibit, with its silver wings of stainless steel spoons, is a monument to the urge to be free.