Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Armchair View of Birds in Art

As promised the other day, we're about to embark on a mini tour through this year's Birds in Art exhibition, the 35th anniversary edition of this world-wide reputed, juried competition. 118 works, both two and three dimensional, were included in this year's hanging and I have selected 32 of those works to spotlight and to act as fine examples of what I have often talked about on these pages when asked quite specifically for my thoughts on what I feel dictates a good, well put together work for jury consideration. Birds in Art, being one of the premier annual juried animal art competitions, is always a good place to focus each fall. I am pleased that I was able to attend the opening weekend this year as I missed being able to go last September and it is always a treat to see, in person, the fabulous work that makes the cut. Viewing images on catalog pages is acceptable to get a fair understanding of a work, but when you cannot juxtapose sizes and see actual colors and brush strokes, the true essence of a work is diminished somewhat, in my opinion.

Though I have only pulled out less than one third of the works included in the exhibition, I feel that they all embody some of the best qualities of the kinds of works that I always talk about in describing what I feel are works that invariably will catch a juror's eye and beg to be included in the final cut. This is not to, in any way, diminish the intensity and wonderful compositional structures of the other 86 works not featured here. I could have easily spoken on each and every work of art included in this year's exhibition, but for the sake of time, the chosen 32 do represent, I feel. the overall high level of artistic and creative endeavors of each of this year's represented artists. Many of these works were done by artists who were fortunate enough to have their work juried into Birds in Art for the first time this year and that also speaks volumes about the creative energies that overflow here.

After being included in this internationally recognized exhibition in 19 of the last 20 years, it never ceases to amaze me, the levels to which every single artist goes to create works that encompass a range of ideas, ways of communicating those ideas and unique viewpoints when dealing with such a thematic competition. As you will see in the examples here, there are many ways to take a simple subject, like birds, and develop very diverse and exciting compositions. Long time readers of these pages will know that I find the development of a compositional idea to be one of the most challenging and interesting, thought provoking parts of being an artist. I've spoken at length about what I feel are the important concepts in putting together a composition that will set that work of art apart from all others when viewed in a continuous stream of slides or digital projections in a jury room.

Sometimes it's a touch of humor, sometimes a different gestural movement. The unexpected will always stop someone and beg that they dig deeper and become more involved in a work of art; hidden treasures and the hunt for them can always spark interest and become an important way in which a work of art can rise above others. Masterful rendering always allows the cream to rise to the top and that combined with a slight twist or unique viewpoint or odd thrust of light and shadow will enhance a technically well done work and move it to that next, higher level.

So, with all this in mind, a look at the first set of works that certainly reached out and grabbed me as I walked the galleries this past weekend. In this first grouping of four works, I refer to that time-tested means of forming a well balanced and interesting composition, the rule of thirds. I have talked about this format many times over the five years of posting to this blog page, but I cannot speak strongly enough of just how foolproof making use of this compositional device is. In the image above, Arlene Rheinish of California has developed a beautiful rendering of a Hawaiian moorhen. It's a simple and spare oil with the focus being on the bird with the artist's elegant rendering of the water swirls acting as a soft, almost invisible background. The work's intensity is further heightened by her minimal use of color, allowing the bird to become the full focus of the work leaving distracting elements out and only incorporating the single stem that the bird is focused upon as a strike point for the viewer's eye to be drawn into the work. The bird is positioned almost precisely on one of the four 'sweet spots' determined by the rule of thirds and therefore offers a more interesting placement than it would have if, say, the artist had positioned the bird more central to the overall dimensions of her canvas.

In the first of the two works shown above, Sueellen Ross of Seattle, has taken a compositional format that I love to use, a long horizontal work area, and painted a wonderful, inviting work spotlighting a rather common and often maligned bird, the grackle. Her use of a large area of 'negative space', indicating sky, offers more intensity to the bird and the other elements of the composition, namely the beautiful ruffle of the leaves across the bottom of the image. There is not a lot going on in this work, but through her deft use of all that negative space and the wonderful jumble of leaves, which add a nice bit of movement to an otherwise static pose, along with a very spare palette, this rather simple depiction of a rather uninteresting bird becomes a very unique and appealing work of art. Again, the bird sits pretty much on one of those most important sweet spots.

In Joe Garcia's beautiful watercolor of a mourning dove sitting on a fence, we see again, a rather spare composition, though incorporating more elements than in Sueellen's work, the same sort of positive and negative spatial relationships are present here. There is a nice diagonal sweep to the work which naturally brings the viewer's eye to the point of focus, the bird. Also, the finely detailed interweaving of the fence, which in some ways duplicates the movement of Sueellen's wavy leaves, adds a nice touch of movement to an, again, rather static pose. The introduction to the left, of the signage, from which Joe took his title for the work, American Fence Co., adds a nice bit of balance to the right facing bird. If that little bit of dark and heaviness were not there to the left, and considering the position and gestural movement of the bird looking over its shoulder and off to the right margin, there is the possibility that the work would have lost balance, pulling the viewer's eye off the right margin and out of the painting. As in Sueellen's work, the bird sits at just about the vertical break of the third division across the horizontal plain of the canvas.

In the last of these first four works, below, Anne Shingleton, a first time inclusion in B in A, has painted a beautiful oil portrait of a mute swan. Residing currently in Florence, Italy, Anne's work really stopped me cold as I was immediately drawn into the composition and its unique viewpoint, interesting patterns and lovely use of light and shadow. Incorporating a bit more in the way of compositional elements than the two works just mentioned, this work still has a very spare feel to it and relates back to Arlene Rheinish's work in its almost monochrome water tones. Looking at this work and Arlene's, you can see how the large expanse of water acts as an almost nonexistent, subtle foil for the major subject matter of the work. Anne's inclusion of the beautifully rendered shadow of the swimming swan adds a nice balance to her very intentional positioning of the bird, again sitting right on one of the four important cross points of the rule of thirds. The addition of the angled ripples in the water, adding nice diagonal interest, not only gives a bit more indication of movement throughout the work, but counteracts the thrust of the bird's movement left to right. They and the shadow act in the same way that Joe Garcia's signage did to create a nice balance across the entire work area.

In this wonderful oil painting above, by Cincinnati resident, Leslie Shiels, humor reigns. As I have often said, adding a humorous twist to a work can often make what might be an otherwise overlooked or less considered work, more appealing to both a viewer's eye as well as a juror's eye. Working in a 3 foot square canvas format, Leslie has given us a nice laugh, as well as made very fine compositional use of the square field in her triangular composition structure.

Bernd Poppelmann, a ten time inclusion in B in A from Germany, works within an almost square format as well, developing a fine rendering of a red-crowned crane in oil. As in several of the already discussed works, his canvas is spare, a lot of negative space surrounds the subject and allows the bird to take on the important thrust that it's movements signify. It is a simple painting, the bird's coloration being very monochrome again with that wonderful red crown adding just enough intensity to this otherwise soft work, but the way in which Bernd chose to portray the bird, in action, is the thing that captures my eye. There is a sharp, abstract, graphic quality to this very figurative work that also intrigues me as a viewer and I have no doubt, did the same for the jury.

A painting very much after my own heart, Martin Lasack's Wren, depicting a Bewick's wren, really spoke to me as a fellow artist. His composition focusing in on the twists and turns and textural details of the tree is every bit the sort of idea that gets my juices flowing when thinking in terms of interesting compositional ideas. There is much here to see, but his deft placement of the bird against a large area of negative space gives the small creature the impact and intensity needed to pull the viewer into the work and make it recognized as a piece of bird art, though the importance of the work is totally built upon the mass and sharp detail of the tree. This is the sort of idea I often mean when I talk about the unexpected, the surprise, the 'ah ha' moment in a work of art; the very things that I think become appealing to a juror's eye when reviewing a huge number of art works. He has devised a very interesting, engaging composition within that square boundary that can sometimes be a hard place to work within.

They say, and I don't know who 'they' ever are but . . . good things come in small packages. I do believe there is truth to that and the next five artists have figured out a very strong way in which to make their little gems have as much impact as larger, more involved works of art. My understanding of the jury process at the Woodson for Birds in Art indicates that the jury does not have knowledge of the sizes of works that are being considered, only medium and title. If this is indeed the case, then a small 9 x 12 painting has just as much possibility of being considered in the final cut as a 36 x 48. The job though, of the artist, is to make a strong statement in order to capture that juror's eye. In the first little gem below, Californian, Gloria Chadwick, does this, to my way of thinking, in spades. Her tiny 8 x 6 oil captures the soft beauty of a barn owl. A rather straight forward portrait , she has heightened its intensity through placing the bird on a solid background, giving the nicely lit feathering of the owl strength belying the softness of the individual elements. Her brushwork also caught my eye immediately allowing at once both a feeling of impressionism and 'quick study' like mastery, alongside a feeling of detail and immediate understanding of her subject. By doing the bird in profile, I also feel she has given this simple work a feel of mystery - what is that owl looking at, what is it concentrating on - and these sorts of feelings are always the sorts of feelings that will draw me into a work of art.

First-timer, Kathryn Mapes Turner of Jackson, Wyoming, has also brushed a beautiful small scale work with her black-billed magpie, December Magpie. This work, 11 x 14 in size, carries through, for me, the same sort of instantaneous, quick study feel of Chadwick's work above. There is again, a spare inconsequential background, nothing to detract from the masterful rendering of the bird, its shape and feathers taking center stage. The magpie's natural coloration leaves little for sharp differentiation, but she has managed to infuse this very appealing work with movement, intensity and again, a feeling of mystery as to what has caught this bird's attention?

In these next works, first by Lindsay Scott of New Zealand, and second by Virginian, Mary Cornish, these fine painters have developed two lovely little portraits focusing on intimate moments, capturing unique gestural movement in their respective subjects. Lindsay's 12 x 9 colored pencil rendering shows white-faced whistling ducks and is aptly titled, Intimate Moment. It is at once a very soft and sensitive rendering of this pair, yet also a very strong depiction, heightening its strength through deep coloration and detail work in the feathers. By focusing in on the heads and upper bodies of the two, the intimacy involved becomes such a strong point of focus, it is easy to see why this little work made the final cut. In the case of Mary's Picasso's Muse, again there is an intimate moment of preening with this lovely depiction of a saddle-billed stork in her 16 x 8 oil. Negative background pulls focus totally to the bird and its interesting gesture with its beak. An unusual pose, the strength of this work, I feel, lays in the stark contrasts between dark and light and red features. There is little room for guesswork here as anatomy of naturalness of the bird need to be foremost in this close-in view.

And finally in this little grouping of gems, one of my personal favorite works in this year's exhibition and one that appeared to be overlooked by many of the public attending the various opening weekend events, German, Ron Meier's linocut on paper, Summer, knocked my socks off. 11 x just shy of 8 inches, this little work really spoke to me and begged to be delved into. I can understand completely how this gem was one of the jury's favorites and made the final cut. The intensity of color, the wonderful line quality, the perfect balance of compositional elements, the whimsy of it just rang all the bells and whistles for me.

Being a monochromatic artist, working in graphite, I am always anxious to see what other monochrome works the jury might have selected. I was not disappointed this year. First, Michigan artist, Karen Bondarchuk, blew me away with her 33 x 42 charcoal raven portrait. It's size alone was a first draw for me and then, upon a few minutes of observation, I was struck by an underlying sense of humor in the work. As in several of the other already discussed works, a strong sense of immediacy in this work was reflected in the way in which Bondarchuk produced sweeping lines and movement in the work. Being much larger than life size, a true depiction of anatomical correctness was needed and quite easily carried through. And below her raven, fellow Maryland artist, Paula Waterman's beautiful scratchboard of a European white stork, took my breath away as well. In Paula's work, it is the light that always is the strongest component of her compositional possibilities and this work had it all around. In addition to the detail of the feathers, the light and shadow modeling of the bird, the intimate gesture of a waking bird, her placement of the bird, off center, looking right to left, balances the negative space of the background perfectly.

Two fellow graphite artists come next, first Cole Johnson of New York State and his hooded merganser, followed by Ryan Jacque of Massachusetts and his little sparrow. In Cole's work, he has masterfully given the viewer a very accurate depiction of the bird and it is indeed, a beautiful portrait. What makes this piece special to me, and I would believe the jury as well, is the addition of the indication of snow falling. As Cole even noted in his text accompaniment to the work in the catalog, he felt that without the addition of the snow and its lovely soft movement in the work, the work would have seemed 'a bit dull'. In Ryan's texturally intricate and revealing work, Stonemill and Sparrow, he gives us a reverse interpretation of compositional development from that of Cole's, here relying on an interesting mix of texture upon texture, contrast upon contrast, shape upon shape, to delight the viewer's eye, as opposed to the soft , simple, less detailed subtitles of Cole's muted background. Equally impressive and appealing works in the same medium, but showing the individual strengths of technical style of both artist's mastery of the medium.

A triple play of works that maintain a humorous note are next. First Carel Brest van Kempen's, Studio in the City, just screams with jovial content. Next, S. V. Medaris', Back in the Day, Poultry Edition, is a delightful assemblage from this second-timer from Wisconsin. And lastly David Milton's, Neon Dove, spoke especially to me as it was very reminiscent of my 2002 included work, Flamingo Motel. All three of these works have that 'tongue-in-cheek' content that naturally brings a smile to one's face.

A continuing humorous aspect can be seen in first-timer and Seattle resident, Craig Kosak's, The Third Agreement, in which a pair of ravens hold center stage. His wonderful mix of abstract notions and figurative subject matter, along with mystery once again in wonder at the meaning of it all, certainly attracted my attention and obviously, the jury as well.

Sometimes, it may not necessarily be what is said or depicted in a work for a thematic jury such as that for Birds in Art, but what is not said, that is capable of capturing the eye of the jury and assuring a spot in the final cut. Two fine and wonderful examples of this possibility are shown here in another first-timer, Darcie Copeland's, Nest Egg, and first-timer Julie Bender's unique pyrographic Ready and Waiting. In Copeland's lush oil, no bird exists as such, but there certainly is the connection with 'bird art'. Her humorous approach left me thinking, 'now why didn't I think of that?' The uniqueness of Julie's medium, wood burning, alone, sets her work substantially apart from all the rest. But, not relying solely on that aspect of her submittal, she has defined a lovely work, again not even showing a bird but deftly indicating the presence of the subject matter of the exhibition not only with humor but with great personality!

Sometimes, it may be a strong, unique, graphically unexpected way of using color that can capture a juror's eye, as in the next works. These next two first-timers, Debbie Stevens from Texas and Peter Slater of Queensland, Australia, have brought an intensity to their works that strikes a strong chord in a viewer's eye, yet supports and strengthens the primacy of their subjects. In Debbie's beautiful red-crowned cranes, the birds glide through a lushly intense reflective pool. Color abounds. Movement abounds. Intricate patterns of reflection give great graphic quality to the work yet remain secondary to the cranes. Likewise in Peter's work there is a similar feel, though the color is not as intense and the viewpoint is different, there is a rich connection to Debbie's work in that there are again, nice, graphic delineations of water and movement which are beautifully 'remembered' in the pattern on the back of the Plumed Whistling Duck.

In the work above, Julie Rogers has exemplified perfectly what I often speak of when I say that it can be the gesture that gets you. Here, her snowy egrets Clash in the Colony. They bring great movement to her oil painting, generate a lot of interest and demand that the viewer take note to experience all the action and activity that is going on. Many static posed subjects can make beautiful images when other elements and ideas of composition are adhered to. But in this case, the interplay of the three birds against a rather simple yet finely delineated background is what is important about this work, in addition to the masterful grasp of the medium.

Timothy David Mayhew, yet one more first-timer from New Mexico, makes use of the same idea as in the last discussed work by portraying a very beautiful, intimate gestural movement with his trumpeter swan work, The Big Chill. It is again, a rather simple straight forward work, minimal background, minimal color. Yet by focusing on the movement of the bird and the interesting twist and curve of its head and the outstretched leg, what might otherwise have been a quite acceptable bird portrait, has turned into something that much more special by taking the time to compose and add interest through an unexpected pose.

David Lowther, a Brit and yet one more first-timer (I assure you I did not intentionally select a majority of first time artists to Birds in Art when pulling this together!), has assembled a very interesting composition of white-faced whistling ducks in his lovely pastel work. Now, those of you who have paid attention over the years will recall that I often harp on my desire to work with odd numbers or pairs when composing ideas for a work. David, though working with only four subjects, has defined a very pleasing, well balanced, interesting composition here. What appeals to me about this work most is the beautiful way in which the birds overlap and form a wonderful, abstract shape in themselves. Set on a solid negative background, the large mass of the four intertwined birds makes for a very eye catching work.

This beautiful texturally detailed work, above, by Spaniard, Manuel Diaz Galeote, is another piece that caught my particular attention as it also embodies much of what I try to bring to my compositions and ways of describing in interesting fashion, my chosen subject matter. I love the play of textures and simple, monochromatic appearance of this work. And as discussed when all this exploration began quite a few paragraphs ago, his placement of the bird right upon one of the four intersections of the rule of third splits, is so perfect. Added interest is achieved through the unique angle of view, allowing the artist to make use of wonderful angles and diverging lines throughout the composition. Even though the work has an overall tonally similar quality to it, the various textures introduced add the needed interest level.

New Hampshire pastel artist, Cindy House starts a look at the final four works with her incredibly beautiful, Reflections, A Touch of Blue. When I talk about holding mastery of your medium, no one defines that better than Cindy. Her landscapes always sing with pure understanding of what she has chosen to focus on. Watching her demonstration of her technique and how she works this past weekend at the opening of the exhibition, was a joy. Her deft strokes with the pastel stick left no doubt that she has complete control of her medium. And the end results are always so captivating, her work just does not fail to draw you in. And then too, another case of 'now you see it, now you don't'. There is a blue jay in the work, but that is not really what this piece is all about and obviously, again, not of primary concern to the jurors. The overriding mastery of medium and understanding of appealing, well balanced composition is what this work is all about.

Al Barnes, another Texan, duplicates much of what Cindy has brought to her work in his Lily Grebe, a large 30 x 40 oil painting that just sings with atmosphere. Another work that relies upon a true mastery of medium and compositional structure, his bird, like Cindy's, plays a pretty much secondary roll to the glory of the landscape at hand. A lot of young or just-starting-out artists believe, in relation to submittals to a thematic jury like that for Birds in Art, that they must portray a bird larger than life to prove that they know the intention of the exhibition when in fact, as well shown through these images, the bird can sometimes not even be there or play such a small and almost unnoticed roll.

In this next magical and masterful work, Matthew Hillier not only gives us a gorgeous and lush seascape full of movement and interest and substantial development, but places his bird subjects right out front, interacting with their environment as natural as can be. This is a bird painting. But, it also is so much more. It is the kind of work that allows you to lose yourself in it, if you wish. It is the kind of work that grabs hold of you upon viewing and the longer you stand before it, the more you are involved. I can not imagine a juror not being stopped in his tracks by this work when seen in a continuous stream of works being flashed across a screen.

And finally, another gorgeously brushed work by the 2005 Master Wildlife Artist at Birds in Art, Vermonter Nancy Howe. In Returning Home, all of Nancy's skills and talents as the superb artist that she is, come to the fore. Though once again, the birds seem to play a very subordinate roll in the overall composition, without their implied movement, the work would be a fine painting but would not, to my way of thinking, have that extra intrigue and feel that it does. What stands out most about this work to me is the typical Howe soft and sublime brushwork. Detail is there, but deftly softened, melting from one luscious color into another. Hard edges do define separations between the elements, yet everything takes on a feel of seeing the world through a fine lace curtain. It is no wonder she was honored with the Master status five years ago.

And so, to conclude this look at some of what I think helped to make this year's Birds in Art exhibition a stunning assemblage of art works from artists all across the globe, once again I direct you to take into consideration some of what has been discussed here today when you next tackle a submittal for a juried competition. Yes, what has gone on here has revolved around a very specific, thematic group of works. But, I am convinced that the elements of design and compositional structures that have been talked about her and in years past, can easily be applied to any genre of art. Balance in composition, whether it be in the form of figurative work or abstraction, always is the strongest basis for a good work of art. Choosing the right placement for your subjects and adhering to a few, time-tested and well established norms, can be the difference between a lovely painting or drawing, and a fine, jury-accepted work of art. Incorporating humor, unique viewpoints, unexpected elements, interesting gestures and the like, all can go a long way in separating your work from that of all the other good, technically proficient artists who are competing for the same small number of 'final cut' slots.


jane said...

Hi Terry!
I so enjoy "going" to a show with you this way! Your insight makes looking at these pieces for the first time so much more interesting than as if looked at on the pages of the catalogue! Thank you so much for doing these yearly critiques! I only hope that one year one of MY pieces will be included in this show!
Take care,

Linda Besse said...

Thank you Terry for taking me on a walking tour of Birds in Art. Fascinating to see the show through your eyes. I am just sorry I couldn't make it for the opening weekend.
This tour of yours took a lot of time and consideration to put together. Thank you!