Humans have always admired, and even emulated, birds. They want to fly like them, sing like them and, in the finest of clothing, approach the beauty of their plumage.
But humans have also always killed birds, even annihilating whole species.
“The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, ponders both the admiration and the devastation. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a species that may have numbered in the billions when ravenous Europeans first arrived in North America. But it also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a national effort to preserve untamed lands and untamable animals.
Of the 12 contemporary artists in the show, all of whom are American, Tom Uttech seems most attuned to the wilderness. His vast, sumptuously rendered paintings are inspired by visits to protected forests in Ontario and northern Wisconsin. His visions of mass migrations are realistic in their particulars but fanciful in composition: Huge numbers of birds and mammals rush across the canvas, sometimes observed by a bear seated contemplatively at the center.
At the other end of the gallery, and in stark contrast to Uttech’s depiction of abundance, are David Beck’s elegies for the dodo, another extinct species. The artist’s memorials take many forms: pencil drawing, bronze sculpture, even a mini-museum building that’s just big enough to hold a model of one dodo skeleton. What’s constant is the rebuking figure of the bygone creature, whose name became a synonym for “stupid” because it didn’t realize it should fear people.
Beck’s dodos are at one end of the exhibition, near other works of vanished birds. Walton Ford’s exquisitely detailed paintings and drawings include one of a massive flock of passenger pigeons and another that imagines the elephant bird, an approximately 10-foot emu-like creature that once lived on Madagascar. Rachel Berwick’s ghostly “Zugunruhe” is a tree full of translucent pigeons cast in resin, while James Prosek’s full-wall mural shows birds in silhouette, flocking through a forest. The picture is modeled on bird guides but, unlike those books, provides no information on individual species. This is birdwatching for people who don’t carry a checklist.
A passenger-pigeon specimen is one of the birds, both living and mummified, captured in a section of the show devoted to photographs. Joann Brennan, who snapped the lifeless pigeon at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, also photographs research projects that manage avian populations. Lorna Bieber manipulates and rephotographs stock images of birds; Paula McCartney observes the real things in their sylvan habitat; and Barbara Bosworth portrays them perched on human hands. In Bosworth’s poignant images, such tiny species as the blue-winged warbler and the common yellowthroat appear exceptionally vulnerable.
The more fanciful work, Uttech’s included, is on the other side of the gallery. It is there that winged creatures erupt from a center point, feathering the entire canvas in Fred Tomaselli’s “Bird Blast.” With their luxurious detail, gilded shapes and one-dimensional renderings, the artist’s collage-paintings suggest medieval European and classical Persian illuminated manuscripts.
A dodo and a passenger pigeon also perch in an area devoted to sculptural work by Petah Coyne, who incorporates taxidermy birds into bizarre assemblages, and by Laurel Roth Hope, who crochets “biodiversity reclamation suits” to cloak wooden pigeon models. More puckishly, she builds bird models from such components as hair barrettes, fake fingernails, false eyelashes and other items designed to beautify women. After so many birds have yielded their feathers for fashion, it seems only fair that Hope raided the hair and makeup aisles to create her majestic “Regalia.”
Still, the goal of “The Singing and the Silence” is not to celebrate the simulated bird, however artful or amusing. This is one art exhibition in which the work, however deft or affecting, doesn’t seek to upstage its subject. The made objects are secondary to the soaring, fluttering thing itself.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Through Feb. 22 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. (Metro: Gallery Place). 202-633-1000. www.americanart.si.edu. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free.
Upcoming events: Jan. 13 at 6 p.m.: a talk with curator Joanna Marsh and Pete Marra, head of the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo; Jan. 20 at 6 p.m.: a screening of “Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo”; Feb. 3 at 6 p.m.: an artist panel with Fred Tomaselli, Laurel Roth Hope and Petah Coyne; Feb. 17 at 6 p.m.: a screening of “Winged Migration.”