"Untitled #1180 (Beatrice)" by Petah Coyne (2003-2008)
"Untitled #1180 (Beatrice)" by Petah Coyne (2003-2008)

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Just days before visiting the American Art Museum, an artist friend let me borrow Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. The title refers to a tiny 17th-century painting of the same name by Carel Fabritius that is in the Mauritshuis collection in the Hague. In the novel, the main character’s mother tells her young son that it’s her favorite painting.

If you pick up the novel (so you know I’m not giving this away), the jacket cover will tell you that the boy loses his mother and, through an exciting turn of events, comes into possession of the painting. Her words to him, some of her last, address art history more broadly: “People die…But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness….” It’s these words coincidentally spoken just before her death that haunted me as I walked into an entire exhibition on the subject of birds, following the coincidental loan of a book whose central object is a painting of a bird.

But there are no coincidences, and these words would ring significantly as I considered the problematic presentation of the bird not as subject but as object in “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. As the title suggests, a number of the works address the extinction of bird species like the passenger pigeon, whose last survivor, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago. Commemorating that lamentable centennial, and perhaps noting the increased interest among contemporary artists in ecological and environmental issues, the museum has put together an exhibition of artists whose techniques are at times more stimulating than their messages.

“Falling Bough” by Walton Ford (2002)

For instance, Walton Ford and Fred Tomaselli are renowned for expanding the language of painting while capitalizing on the medium’s unique qualities of pictorial realism. Retaining the legacy of 19th-century naturalists like John James Audubon, Ford directs the innate documentary character of illustrative painting toward new, fantastical narratives that breathe life into forgotten creatures (or invent new ones). In Ford’s, “Falling Bough” (above), part of a huge tree is unfeasibly suspended and whisked away by a furious encasement of hundreds of passenger pigeons. Ford’s captivating realism hardly leads viewers to question the impossible narrative’s legitimacy, and although his cursive text alludes to a precise classification it reveals observations that are more emotional and allegorical than scientific.

Not to be outdone by Ford’s large-scale attention-grabbing works, Tomaselli coalesces paint and collaged objects into seductive, ornamental imagery reminiscent of an Eastern design aesthetic. On loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the paint and collage that make Tomaselli’s “Woodpecker” (below), held together under a veneer of epoxy resin, entices viewers to move from side to side, back and forth in a way that doesn’t look too dissimilar from the mating dance of the pileated woodpecker itself. Coincidentally (or not), this is the same variety that graces the cover of my favorite novel of all time, Still Life with Woodpecker, by one-time art critic Tom Robbins.

“Woodpecker” by Fred Tomaselli (2008)

Birds seem acutely suited to visual and literal allegories, as evident in Petah Coyne’s “Untitled #1180 (Beatrice)” (top). At over 11 feet tall and created from too many materials to possibly list here, it is a central sculpture in the exhibition in which Coyne significantly incorporated taxidermies of white peacocks, swans, and doves. The work is both a response to the deaths of two friends of the artist and an allusion to Dante’s beloved Beatrice, who serves as his guide through heaven in The Divine Comedy. The glorious white birds punctuate the dark blues and purples of Coyne’s lush, summit-like sculpture, contrasting the nuances between solidity and ethereality, darkness and light, and above all life and death. Ghostly avian presences, perched upon and within the floral and velvet textures make this a stunning, if not decadent, piece, all the more mindful of the ethical implications of admiring a creature that has often been stuffed for the sake of visual pleasure.

“The Singing and the Silence” has a well-intentioned focus on the unique spiritual and ecological symbolism of birds, bringing awareness to the damage caused by human intervention in nature that has resulted in the extinction of many species. More optimistically, the exhibition also marks the 50th anniversary of America’s gesture of clemency through its 1964 Wilderness Act.

Coyne’s work, replete with taxidermy, would seem out of place in this exhibition, but it lends a provocative stage upon which to discuss the ethical use of animals, dead or alive, in contemporary art. A subject of debate in recent years, it is not addressed in the exhibition, however, and only resurfaces again in Joann Brennan’s photographs of dead birds from natural history museums and research centers. The birds Coyne has incorporated into her work over the last decade are not endangered, and Brennan’s photographs celebrate the institution’s stewardship and study of zoological specimens in averting future crises. Unless we’re making another literary turn here, this time toward the use of irony, I find it troubling to consider a bird as a “thing” in the same way that the mother in The Goldfinch considers her favorite art object. But perhaps it’s both heartbreaking and necessary.