Art review: ‘The Singing and the Silence’ at Smithsonian American Art Museum
For the Washington Post, by Mark Jenkins, December 18, 2014
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.
The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art 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
Art City Asks: Tom UttechRead More
Tom Uttech hails from Merrill, Wis. (population approximately 9,500), where the Wisconsin River joins with the Prairie River. One suspects that being surrounded from birth by the picturesque cycle of seasons in Merrill has something to do with Uttech’s ascendance to being one of America’s foremost landscape painters and photographers.Uttech, who currently resides in Saukville, Wis., is teaming up with the Tory Folliard Gallery for his ninth solo exhibition in the space. The suite of paintings stem from Uttech’s travels to the Boundary Waters and the Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. As Uttech explains, “These paintings are all recollections of the magic I have found in the North Woods. They never depict any actual place. They hope to recreate the feelings those places generate in ourselves... I do also mean to be saying something about the richness and diversity of life on this planet and how magically wonderful this all is by packing so many individuals and species into the same place at the same time.”Read More
Birds have long been a source of mystery and awe. Today, a growing desire to meaningfully connect with the natural world has fostered a resurgence of popular interest in the winged creatures that surround us daily. The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art examines mankind’s relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve major contemporary American artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.Read More
Congratulations to Tom Uttech, whose major painting Enassamishhinjijweian, will be exhibited at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR. This major oil on canvas measures 103 x 112 inches and was purchased for the museum’s permanent collection. The museum takes its name from nearby Crystal Spring and the bridge construction incorporated in the building design by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie and officially opens November 11, 2011. Tom Uttech will be traveling to attend the opening, and will be in good company with other artists such as: Kara Walker, Mark diSuvero, and Nick Cave. Wisconsin is very proud of Tom Uttech!Read More
Tom Uttech’s beautifully clear photograph “Onimik Sagaigan” was taken over twenty years ago, but the artist assures us that the view is just as pristine today. The scene is located in the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, a protected wildlife reserve and Tom Uttech’s “spiritual home” and source of inspiration for his paintings. Photography is a reference for Tom’s oil paintings, but he never reproduces scenes in a completely realistic manner. When you view his paintings, you will find mystical elements worked into a detailed, natural setting. Certain components often appear such as rocks shaped like animals, fallen branches among shadows that seem to spell messages out in code, and animals, that at first glance are not quite visible. The photographs often contain some of these aspects, and is why it is relevant to see the photographs of the places that move him.
As the Tom says, “Since these pictures are about nature and our role in it, the knowledge gained might grow into love of nature, and thus into concern for its well being. This concern could lead to action to protect nature and, therefore, ourselves. The best response to my paintings would be for you to…go straight to the wildest piece of land you can find and sit down to let it wash over you and tell you secrets.”
While his photos are available in various sizes, this particular version’s image is 11×11 inches and enclosed within a wonderfully decorated frame crafted by the artist. It was made especially for our recent exhibition of Uttech’s work “Boreal Conversations.” To see more examples of Tom Uttech’s photographs, please click here. To see the paintings of Tom Uttech, please click here.Read More
Tom Uttech‘s painting OKWANIM (901), oil on linen, framed to 45 1/2 x 49″ is a quintessential example of his work. The seemingly straightforward subject: a landscape with animals; is ethereal and mysterious on closer viewing. What is making the shadows in the depths of the water? Is there a mythical figure hidden in the painterly clouds? How many wolves are actually in the painting? Uttech’s patient application of many layers of paint over a long period of time makes possible the subtle light, meticulous detail, and magical sensibility this Midwestern master is known for. OKWANIM is featured on the cover of our soon to be out catalog Boreal Conversations.
View the Tom Uttech exhibition online here.