Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The A, B, C's of Birds in Art

With the opening weekend of this year's edition of  Birds in Art  at the Woodson Art Museum still fresh in my memory from ten days ago and apropos of my Master's talk, The A, B, C's of an Artist's Life, it's time for this year's version of my annual armchair review of my favorite works from the exhibition. Calling to mind the overall concept of my talk, I'll speak about my favorites with reference to some of the letters of the alphabet, but before I dig into the heart of things, apologies for some of the poor photographic renderings below as I had to reference the images in the catalog this year as opposed to shots taken in the galleries of the actual works. Having been named this year's Master, I had little time to wonder the galleries during the weekend, as I have been able to do in past years, so I really did not get to see the complete exhibition as I had hoped but did manage a very fast run through on Friday afternoon during the artists' only private viewing. So, some of my photos of this morning below are not the best representations of the works, and I offer apologies to their creators up front.
Now, on to . . . 'L' for Landscapes . . .

These two lovely oils, left by 2011's honored Master, Jim Coe (apologies for the darkened right half of the photo, Jim) and 8 time exhibitor, William Alther, both demonstrate the marvelous brush work of these two fine artists. Though differing in seasonal choices, both works struck me with their meticulous yet painterly qualities of striking contrasts and soft and lost edges as well as interesting compositional placement of their avian subjects. Each knows how to use paint and though Coe's work has a softer light source than the sharp sunlit, snow laden boughs of Alther's evergreen, he still manages to convey a sense of atmosphere that draws a viewer into the work and across the expanse of the lily pads.

In the next grouping of three additional landscapes that caught my attention, another honored Master, Nancy Howe (2005) leads the way with her subtle palette of wintry tones in Liquid Light, Frozen Shadows, spotlighting a group of turkeys. I've always admired Nancy's landscapes and the way her brushwork alludes to a softer side of nature, almost as if you were viewing her work through gauze. The peach/orange tones of the sky reflected in the creek, act as a lovely balance of subtle brightness in the seemingly otherwise colorless landscape and drew my eye into the work immediately. 

Next to Nancy's work is another of my favorite landscape artists, Cindy House. Her lovely pastel, Early Morning Flight, also draws the viewer in, along the curve of the dirt road and on to the harrier, which in the instance of this particular work has more command than Cindy's usual tiny, hidden, 'seek-and-ye-shall-find' bird subjects. Cindy's works never fail to stop me and demand my attention. Her meticulous renderings of landscape abound with detail yet always come across, to my eye, as soft and willowy, showing a delicate side of nature while instantly connecting with a viewer and allowing him or her to associate personal memory of other places and times as a fine work of art should.

The third work in this grouping above, by Pennsylvania artist, Jim Bortz, repeats the winter theme of Nancy's oil but in Bortz's acrylic on hardboard, there is a colder, frostier, somewhat less comforting feeling developed, but it still drew me into it in that 'I can't wait to get indoors and out of the cold', shivery manner. As in Nancy's painting, Jim has lead our eye into his with that brilliant slash of color in the sky as the sun sets over the landscape. And as with Cindy's piece, the bird almost becomes an afterthought as we suddenly see it's movement, as you would in a natural encounter in the great, frozen outdoors of mid winter. Nancy's snow is soft and partially thawed; Jim's snow crackles beneath our feet and reminds us that winter still hangs on.

'B' is for . . . The Berries! Randal Dutra's Robin' The Berries. though rather a small work at 12" x 16", held my attention as if it were twice the size. 'B' is also for Busy . . . but in the sharp intensity of the broad range of colors and shapes and textures depicted in his oil, Dutra spotlights his robin in strong sunlight which allows it the importance of being the main subject within the paisley pattern of its surroundings. The work is a riot of color which reflects the trueness of its virtual interpretation of a natural encounter. 

Wes Hyde's not-so-still Still Life with Flycatcher was very high on my list of favorites not only because it stopped me dead in my tracks upon encountering it in the galleries, but because his deft brushwork, depicting all the subtleties of light and shadow, are compositional elements close to my own heart in my graphite work. Again, bright berries play an important part in bringing the viewer's eye into the work, move it through the composition and give a sharpness to the otherwise more muted colors of the background, bird and bowl.

The next letter in this artistic alphabet is . . . 'E' for . . . Edges!

Here, above, is a nice grouping of three works with subject matter all residing on the edge. Very eastern in flavor, harkening to the elegance and simplicity of Asian art,  these works, one in gouache on gessoed paper, one in graphite and charcoal on bristol board and one in acrylic on canvas, show how three different artists working in three diverse mediums on three distinct substrates make use of a similar compositional design concept but make it their own with individuality and nuance reflective of their medium and stylistic approach to art.

South African artist, Shirley Greene, has the most colorful approach with her delightful quintet of bee-eaters. By posing her subjects primarily along the left edge of her canvas, she's created a nice entry into the work, our eye following the curve of the branch and eventually down to the departing green winged flyer. By repeating the general flavor of the bird's coloration in the soft, rather nondescript background, there is a very nice balance created between the solo flyer and the heavier upper left corner of the composition. The interesting movements and differing poses of each bird add yet another layer of interest.

Ray Brown's white-breasted nuthatch in, What's Going Down, carries through a similar idea as in Greene's painting, but in shades of grey with pencil and charcoal. There is a nice flow to the work, again defined by the curving lines of the twigs juxtaposed with the sharp overhead view of the bird. Allowing for a large area of 'negative' space, all that white bristol board, let's his fine draftsmanship sing and showcase exactly what details were necessary to get his point across, yet not overwork and clutter the more 'positive' space of the upper left corner.

The final work of this triad by 1998 Master honoree, Thomas Quinn, mirrors the general compositional ideas of the other two artists, but rendered in his very distinct style with gouache (an opaque watercolor), has more angularity to it while manifesting a similar response in the viewer. Edges can be tricky places to seat a subject; if not handled well this sort of placement of main subject can direct a viewer's eye right off the compositional plain. These three accomplished artists have challenged themselves to work out not only interesting compositions, which have caught the eye of a panel of jurors for this exhibition, but have managed to differentiate each work from the other by tweaking a basic concept and making it theirs. 

In this next pairing of works, 'S' . . . for Sea . . . predominates. On the left, North Carolinian, Ralph Grady James, has painted a wonderful, evocative oil. His Royal tern rises from the waves with catch in beak. The spare palette of deep sea greens and blues melds sky and sea and bird into a cohesive composition. The elements of the overall design are simple allowing for a strong indication of movement in both bird and crashing wave. As I've noted before about compositional placement and balance, his bird sits just about on one of the 'sweet spots' of the rule of thirds . . . it really could not be placed anywhere else in the compositional field.

In the second work of this pairing of marine themed paintings above, Connecticut resident, Sean Murtha, in his third inclusion in Birds in Art, reiterates the vastness of the ocean as depicted in James' piece but carries the expanse of the waters farther out giving his gannets room to sail and glide across the breaking sea. As in Jim Bortz's winter landscape earlier discussed, Murtha has introduced a sharp, brilliant orange horizon light that draws the viewer into the work giving the otherwise monotone painting a spark that livens it and adds depth.

As is always the case with the substantial 120 or more piece exhibition that is Birds in Art, many of the juried works take on a simple portrait character where the bird is foremost, front and center, with background, stage setting acting as just that, a supporting character in the overall compositional idea. So, we come to the letter 'P' for . . . Portrait. 

I this first pairing of more portrait like works below, the top one, an oil by first timer Kay Witherspoon, was much to my liking because of its horizontal thrust. Those who follow my blog will know that I tend to enjoy composing ideas in a horizontal and linear format. I was immediately taken with Witherspoon's marvelous rendering of a magpie, beautifully painted, positioned strongly on the right hand vertical third split of the overall compositional field and the lack of emphasis on it's surroundings. Even though her delineation of the fence components mirrored the level of detail in her major subject, it did not conflict with the importance of the bird, but added the appropriate horizontal linear movement to balance the overall composition while leaving the background 'fuzz' to give the viewer's eye the appropriate place to rest. Had there been more detail in the distance/background, the importance of the bird would have gotten lost in all the hubbub. Perhaps this is a very keen example of taking reference material and choosing what is important to leave in and what is not so important which can be left out. Far too often, I see otherwise fine renderings of subject and compositional idea, that get 'lost' in the detail of including everything from one's reference photos/materials. The judicious selection of what is needed and what can be left out is all important when considering a work as a 'whole' and leaving what is not there, to the imagination of the viewer.

Rod Lawrence's fifth inclusion in Birds in Art, Autumn Gold, a small work at only 7" x 11", had mighty strength to rival the larger canvases hanging alongside it. (apologies again for the photo glare along the left side of the image) His masterful rendering of the bird and its perch, just as in Witherspoon's painting, place all the emphasis and focus on the subject bird with little if any indication of a background. There is an appropriate amount of detail and delineation of the branch, leaves and feathering to make all the important elements sing and less emphasis on the less important 'stuff' of all that negative space. 

In the next pairing of portrait works below, the pose becomes what dominates in otherwise rather simple compositions. On the left, Camile Engel in her second inclusion in the Woodson Museum's flagship annual exhibition, has chosen a very unique and interesting, slightly humorous viewpoint for her subject, a pigeon guillemot. It's a striking and unusual pose, one that I often say represents the kind of image that will definitely catch and stop a juror's eye in judging for a large scale exhibition or competition, and surely did so back in May during the day long jury for Birds in Art. What I like about this work, over and above its unique view, is the deft handedness with which Engel caught the essence of the subject in a larger than life (24" x 36") canvas. As in the two works talked about above (Witherspoon and Lawrence) there is little or no 'background' to fuss with and the major subject holds all the attention, yet the soft and unoverworked indication of water adds the right amount of environment to hold the composition together.

Stretch, by Michael Todoroff completes this duo. His oil of a Sandhill crane glows with a rainbow of colors which is what caught my attention and drew me into the work. Rather dull in coloration in truth, his crane just pops off the canvas with its vibrancy and the addition of the interesting movement in its wing and leg add just that much more notice to this otherwise simple portrait. 

The next pairing of more vertical compositions, both incorporating colored pencil, continue the theme of focus on subject with less emphasis on background. The left hand work by Oregon resident, Patricia Jackman, is done totally with colored pencil. A large work at 20" x 15", it really held my attention with it strong composition, sharp colors, unique viewpoint and fine depiction of subject matter. The museum chose this work as one of several it used in publication and advertising for the exhibition and I can see why as it really is a striking highly graphic image; the sort that again, I think truly captures the interest of not only a casual viewer but a juror's eye as well.

With 20 years of inclusion in the exhibition, Sueellen Ross, in her ink, watercolor and colored pencil work, Dove, Nesting, the other half of the above duet, also renders her subject with a deft hand but includes a tad more of its 'world' for us to enjoy. As in Jackman's interesting point of view, Ross also adds a unique twist to an otherwise simple portrait by making us look up rather than across or flat on. By 'hiding' a major portion of the subject as well, she has added a bit of mystery and naturalness to the work that made it very appealing to me as a fellow artist; definitely the sort of compositional idea that is foremost in my mind when setting out to begin a new project myself.

In the above three works, a final sampling of my favorite more portrait like works, pairs have become the dominant subjects so the portraits take on another layer of interest with the artist's ability to generate movement, direction and more involved compositions. In the first work by 27 year old first timer, Robin Murray (top left) of Michigan, he portrays, in a very unique style, a pair of Blue-faced honeyeaters. I was very much taken with the 'old world' character of his oil technique; the antique gold/bronze palette reinforced that feeling of looking at a 16th Century European work or an early Audubon and coming off the easel of such a young artist was quite appealing to me as a fellow artist. Murray's brushwork matched that of included artists twice his age and his design concept in this composition showed great thought. 

Below Murray's work, Patricia Pepin of Canada, in her 9th inclusion in Birds in Art, does a masterful job of not only portraying a particular species and a particular association with that bred of rooster, but offers a marvelous work of fine art. Light and shadow play an important roll in her rendering and the negative spacial relation to the primary subjects is nicely handled with the receding and softening/disappearing pebbles and ground indications.

Finally, wrapping up my favorite portrait works, Sue deLearie Adair in her second appearance at the Woodson's annual fall event, draws a splendid pair of bluejays in Nothing Is. Being a fellow graphite artist, I very much enjoyed her strong graphic take on a portrait of a rather common bird, giving the subject more importance by the intentional stark division of her background. In this work, as opposed to the others mentioned earlier where background faded or fuzzed out, her intense and contrasting background plays a much stronger roll, while still being a rather negative overall setting for the birds. Without that intense separation behind them, the birds would have been pleasant, as they certainly are delineated beautifully, but that added stark background made the piece come alive.

Calvin Nicholls of Ontario, Canada, works in cut paper. I've noted his work before but this was his first time as a Birds in Art artist and I was yet again, astounded with his ability in this very unique medium. With nothing more than a bit of dimensionality, layers of cut paper and the variations caused by light and shadow, his striking work was in my top five favorites. The uniqueness of the medium certainly captured me, but it was compounded by his grasp of design and anatomy and understanding of his subject.

And to my final, yet by no means least, favorite two dimensional work of this year's edition of Birds in Art . . . Alan Woollett's Northern Mockingbird. Only 15" square, I responded to it as if it were five times as large. Rendered entirely in colored pencil, I was instantly in love. This work, my top favorite of all in this year's exhibition, just had it all for me . . . a fine rendering of subject, a truly gifted compositional arrangement with a unique viewpoint and a very keen knowledge of the medium. It is no wonder the museum has opted to add it to its permanent collection.

A final sculptural note . . . some of my favorite three dimensional works are shown below.
Top left, Darrell Davis, with his second inclusion in the exhibition, Clarence Cameron, with his 11th inclusion in Birds in Art, and Helene Arfi of Paris, France and her fourth year of inclusion.

And, my favorite piece of sculpture from this year . . . by Wisconsin sculptor, Don Rambadt . . . 

As I have noted in previous years of posting my favorite works from Birds in Art, I could easily speak on each and every work included in this year's 125 piece originating show in Wausau, Wisconsin. Time just does not allow for it and so I, with difficulty, select out my top couple of dozen works to spotlight. This does not mean that the other works included in the show are lesser or of less importance. Each and every work that makes it through the jury process in May has reason to be a part of Birds in Art as does each of those artists who have 'made the cut'. With hundreds and hundreds of artists entering work each year, well over 600 this time around alone, lots of very fine art is left out. As noted by the museum director, Kathy Foley, on several occasions in the past, the museum could easily showcase a second entire exhibition with the amount of quality work that is not accepted. By zeroing in on these two dozen plus works, I have singled out works that encompass much of the interest level and uniqueness that appeals to me personally about much of the catalog and that the majority of the other works I've not included here do as well. For the sake of brevity, these then, represent the incredible diversity that is this year's Birds in Art.


Kathy Foley said...

Terry, you never cease to amaze me . . . what astute, insightful, and articulate observations! I wish you could give my "Art History 101" Noon-time talk tomorrow?! (Oh, you already gave a splendid "Master Artist" talk!) Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about 2013 "Birds in Art" artworks that "speak" to you. Greatly appreciated. Kathy

Jan Stommes said...

Thanks for the great blog describing "Birds in Art", Terry. For those who are unable to see the show, they will get a very good feel for it with your descriptions of the various works of art. I feel very honored to have my painting included in this exhibition.

Congrats, again, for making Master this year.

Jan McAllaster Stommes

Anne Wright said...

It's good to see some of the other artists work as living in UK I can only read your blogs.I am always impressed with the way you compose your own work.

I draw botanical stuff and there are some interesting compositions here which could be adapted to flowers and plants. I prefer to work on a white background and the question is how to compose artistically and produce a technically good piece of work that isn't (at least here in the UK) going to be dismissed as just 'craft'. Um.. I haven't got that one cracked at the moment.

Jim Bortz said...

Spot on, my friend! Thanks for such a thoughtful overview. It was a pleasure to read. And congrats once again on the well-deserved Master-ship!!!

Ray Brown said...

I look forward to your Birds in Art overview every year. And this year's review was no disappointment. Your insights are always fascinating and enlightening.

This years show was amazing and was made even more so with your work showcased as this years Master Artist. You are a supernova among stars my friend.

Congratulations once again.


Anonymous said...

I am so disappointed that I was not able to attend this year as I so would love to have seen a group of your work.
Thanks for the mention and congratulations once again. I think this years choice for master artist a great one!


Lyndell said...

Hi Terry, I am so glad that you like Robin Murray's work. He is a very young talent, without any formal training in art. I too love his birds, much like an old Master in its appearance. Such talent. One to watch, me thinks! Lyndell