From ancient cave drawings to Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines, birds have always played a central role in art and imagination. “For millennia, humans have been fascinated by birds,” says Joanna Marsh, curator of “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art,” opening Friday at the American Art Museum. “Birds can fly, while we’re stuck in our own earthbound existence. They are accessible to us yet out of reach — a paradox that is fruitful creatively.” The new exhibit features 46 works by
12 artists. Here are four of our favorites.

Petah Coyne, ‘Untitled #1180 (Beatrice)’

(Wit McKay)
(Wit McKay)

In her preliminary research for the exhibit, Marsh sought “contemporary artists with a long-standing engagement with birds and a consistent interest in birds as a subject of artistic expression.” Coyne has been using taxidermy birds in her sculptures for years, often plunging them into large masses of silk flowers, dark velvet and wax. Reminiscent of an oil spill, this sculpture is part of a series Coyne created based on Dante’s “Inferno.” Coyne portrays Beatrice — Dante’s one true love (in real life) and an elusive heavenly messenger who helps guide him through hell (in the book) — as a tornado of velvet, flowers, twigs and birds.

Walton Ford, ‘La Historia me Absolvera’

(Walton Ford/Paul Kasmin Gallery)
(Walton Ford/Paul Kasmin Gallery)

“Ford’s works are monumental and allegorical,” Marsh says. “His birds are a metaphor for our own impact on the land, weaving social and political events through natural history.” The extinct Cuban macaw above represents Fidel Castro, while the flies and snares surrounding him symbolize assassination attempts.

Fred Tomaselli, ‘Migrant Fruit Thugs’

(Fred Tomaselli/Glenstone)

Tomaselli’s hybrid collage-paintings often feature bright swirling colors made by physically gluing hallucinogenic plants to the wood panel. (This work, however, utilizes non-hallucinogenic fig leaves from his yard.) Born in Santa Monica, Calif., now living in Brooklyn, Tomaselli brings an urban perspective to the relationship between nature and humans. “Living in the city,” Marsh says, “birds are often our only link to what’s still wild in America.”

Barbara Bosworth, ‘Indigo Bunting’

(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Photographing people holding songbirds, Bosworth creates an inventory of species and quiet portraits of human relationships to birds. “Birds are a barometer of environmental health and our own health,” Marsh says. And birds need us just as much as we need them. Many species wouldn’t survive without human conservation efforts.

Read more art stories from Express:

Hirshhorn’s ‘At the Hub of Things’ challenges viewers to find the links between distinct works of art and kicks off the museum’s 40 anniversary celebration

Time it was a-changin’: A look at ‘Time Covers the 1960s’ at the National Portrait Gallery

‘Nasta’liq’ at Sackler showcases the most popular form of Persian calligraphy