As I have noted in the past, it would be quite easy for me to add in another ten or fifteen works to this review (or even discuss each and every work included in the exhibition for that matter), but upcoming deadlines and other restraints have put a limitation on the time I am able to devote to an appropriate evaluation of my feelings about what I deem to have been the very top works of the 123 total works of Birds in Art 2018.
In no particular order then, here follows my thoughts on why these ten plus works touched me, spoke to me, kept my rapt attention, and epitomized the very best of the very best.
I begin with a sublimely subtle portrait by T. Allen Lawson, an artist whose work I have been familiar with outside of the context of Birds in Art for some time. Known for his limited palette landscape work, this is Lawson’s fourth consecutive inclusion in Birds in Art. Drawn into the work (22” x 16”) at first glance because of its stark monochromatic depiction, I was also taken with the placement of the subject above center and the lovely balance created between the positive aspect of the bird itself, and the negative space around and below which allowed the floating goose to breathe and inhabit its environment with compositional grace. Drawn with charcoal, graphite and graphitint (slightly color tinted pencils) the goose’s portrayal held just enough detail to present its shape perfectly and define the true essence of the subject, while also giving the work a strong, graphic design quality. In the simplicity of its design, it made, for my eye, the same impactful statement as did its larger and more colorful gallery-wall mates to either side.
I’ve often talked in previous Birds in Art reviews, about how I am often drawn toward small gems of works in the exhibition and the impactful statement that a small work can make on me. This next selection by Berry Fritz (her third inclusion in B in A), is a perfect example of the famous architect, Mies van der Rohe’s well known Less is More proclamation. As Fritz herself noted in her catalog statement about this work, the apparent reference to “The Goldfinch” by Carl Fabritius is a given, but Fritz’s “Jack’s Sparrow” (on the left below) held its own in my estimation. It was again, like Lawson’s above, a rather simply composed portrait, but Fritz’s addition of sparkle and soft color in the hanging ornaments and the delicate shadowing against a featureless background were what gave strength and impact to that small, only 12” x 9” oil. It was a lovely rendition of a simple, common, often overlooked bird subject, truly representative of van der Rohe’s philosophy that sometimes, less can be more.
And speaking of rather common, often taken-for-granted bird species, Michael Dumas’ sparrows in “Sparrows Rest” also made my top ten. As I often tend to work within a long, horizontal compositional framework, I’m quite intrigued by how other artists figure out unique ways to approach designs within similar confines. Dumas placed his birds in a not-so-usual corner of his canvas, brightly lit so they maintained an appropriate focus and weight within the jumble of compositional elements, but the painting was all about the depiction of the cloth sacks piled up, draped languidly with overlapping designs of light and shadow. The painting was about light and shadow and the juxtaposing of textures; elements of design and composition that are near and dear to my heart. His use of a very limited palette of soft tones also played into the overall melding of all the compositional elements into a harmonious and appealing, thought provoking work.
When it comes to compositional harmony, great appeal and the provocation of thought, this next work by Matthew Hillier, hit the bullseye for me. I know Matthew and I admire him for his compositional mastery and I feel his ability to portray crashing waves and translucent water and the sparkle of light dancing across glass-like watery stretches is unsurpassed. He knows water. He knows how to paint it. He knows how to play with the interaction of light and shadow upon it. Birds in Art has always meant, to me (and from my conversations with many at the Woodson, a similar reading) that those works of art that pass muster with the jury are works of art that emphasize the ‘art’ aspect of the exhibition title. Yes, the inclusion of bird subjects is a requirement, but the degree to which that requirement is depicted is left to each artist to interpret on their own. Matthew’s Herring Gulls played a feature roll in his “Stormy Sea”, but the painting was, of course, all about the wave. It’s all about the motion, the intensity and force and power of the breaking wave. It’s all about the artist’s mastery of medium, mastery of depiction of mood and light and atmosphere. I stood before that large, 16” x 48”, oil and felt the ocean spray and heard the roar and sensed the foreboding, and even heard the distant squawks of the disappearing gulls.
Each year, Birds in Art presents the work of many artists who ‘make the cut’ with the jury for the first time. I was there once, a long, long time ago, and was one of those fortunate enough to have made that cut on their very first submission. It’s not an easy nor lack-of-anxiety-provoking game that is played by a first time submitter for the jury, so if an artist makes that cut on their first try, it is a double award of sorts to be a first timer on a first try.
This next artist, James Clow, was one of a dozen first timers this year (ten of whom attended the opening weekend) and also got in on his first try. I had a chat with him during the weekend and, at that time, indicated to him that I was already formulating a list of some of my top favorite works in the exhibition and that his had already found a spot on that list. Apparently the museum had also been making some preliminary notes and subsequent to the opening weekend, it was announced that James’ “Arizona Sun King” would be joining the permanent collection at the Woodson Art Museum. What drew me to this large (24: x 36”) work was first, the uniqueness of the combined mediums of acrylic and sterling silver and second, the fine, fine rendering of the birds feathering and anatomy. It’s a painting that was, yet again, a fairly straight forward portrait but it was the ability of the artist to give life to the subject through his modeling of the raven with light and shadow that made it much more in my estimation. The close-in crop lent an air of graphic abstraction to the overall composition as well and his scumbling textural application to the background softened it enough so as not to play up that texture in competition with the depiction of the bird’s feathers.
Another first timer, Jennifer Hoffman easily stopped me on my first trip through the galleries with her oil and cold wax painting, “A Sedge of Cranes”. The singular tonality of the work hit me first. The compositional design and interest, second. And, the surprising smudges, scrapes and layered brushstrokes of the 20” x 20” painting third. I was intrigued with her process and only later got a truer picture of that process through her own words of description in the accompanying catalog text.
A third first timer also made my top ten list, Kathryn Hansen, and I was pleased to be able to have a lovely conversation with her about “Sittin’ in the Mornin’ Sun”. Graphite . . . yes. Well, of course I am going to naturally be drawn into taking a closer look at any monochrome work included each year and was gratified upon closer review of Kathryn’s beautifully composed smallish (just over 10” x 11”) work. I go on and on about composition all the time and her little gem was one of those works, yet again – small in stature yet large in impact – that just sang to me. I felt that each element of the design was perfectly placed and conceived to give the overall impression of the image incredible unity and strength.
While on the subject of pencils, the next work is another monochrome piece that made a strong impact on me. Georgia Oldano, in her fifth inclusion in Birds in Art, gave her Malabar Pied Hornbills a great presence in her large (28” x 40”) drawing. As I have noted before in previous reviews of works that have great appeal to me, I love when an artist challenges themselves with disappearing acts. Pulling subjects out of the field of view or allowing parts of their structure to ‘disappear’ off the margin of the canvas, takes guts. I’ve been asked many times in the past, why I chose to lose a leg, or a foot or a part of a wing off the edge of one of my drawings and then would have to go into an explanation on my purposes of compositional design. Sometimes I’d be successful in the explanation; sometimes the explanation would not do it for the questioner. In either case, it always came down to my minds-eye determination of compositional design and what was important to the design and what was not. Georgia knew what was important and what was not and where the focus should and needed to be and what aspects of her subjects needed emphasis and which ones did not.
Patricia Pepin’s “Hot Pullets”, made my list as well. I’ve seen this situation before; a group of chicks huddled together under a heat lamp at county fairs and have plenty of my own reference material on the subject. To portray that intensity of light and heat and deep shadow . . . well, I’m still ideating about that in my own work. Patricia managed to brush very appealing oil in her 12” x 16” composition. I liked the definition established between the birds but also liked her softer brush work. Though strong in textural contrasts throughout the design, she managed to blend all together into a very unifying whole and once again, as in my earlier comments about Jennifer Hoffman’s singularly tonal work, Pepin’s spare palette focused the attention completely on her circle of chicks.
A Grand Slam is the term used in baseball for a home run with bases loaded. Carl Brenders surely hit a Grand Slam, in my opinion, with his 48” x 25” painting, “Maritime Nostalgia”. I have been familiar with Carl’s work and his technically detailed style of painting for my entire professional career and many years before. He surely knows how to use his medium; he surely knows how to use small brushwork; he surely knows how to accurately depict the tiniest of details. What “Maritime Nostalgia” showed me though was the fact that, after 8 decades on this earth, Mr. Brenders also knows more about design than I may have ever given him credit for in the past. I stood before that painting in complete rapture. It struck me as a most beautiful assemblage of abstract and geometric shapes, textural contrasts and bold and subtle statements of color. The placement of every element of design was – to be blunt – perfect. The rendering of each element, as could be expected of the work of a Woodson Art Museum honored Master (2002), was spot on. The balance brought across the design of intricately delineated woven wire and broad structural members and the equalizing of the rather spare color palette throughout the vertical canvas, gave great unity to all the elements, yet also offered each of those elements its own moment in the spotlight. I will study this painting for many months and years to come. It was reassuring to hear, as I offered my sincerest appreciation for the painting directly to Carl during the weekend, that the painting, which he himself obviously feels is perhaps one of his best efforts, will always remain in his personal collection.
I’m brought to my Plus One, Chris Maynard. Chris’ meticulously cut feathers have always attracted my attention but it is the story that his rearranged feathers often tell that truly pulls me in. I marveled, in “Pelicans and the Fishes”, at his ability to have made particular use of the variation in color of the feathers to emphasize and spotlight particular birds and fish. Another proper example of how less can often be more, working solely with simple, common materials, Maynard’s ability with knife and creative sense translate into delicate works of art.
A final couple of words on this year’s honored Master, Cindy House. In her introductory remarks on Cindy’s works in the catalog, House’s long-time friend, Julie Zickefoose noted, “Cindy has an uncanny sense of composition; she always knows where a bird will fit seamlessly into a scene.” A truer statement has never been made. Cindy is a landscapist, without question; her pastel renderings of the New England haunts she treasures evoke that atmosphere perfectly. Her meticulous detail of endemic grasses and trees always pull one into her paintings and represent Cindy’s first-hand knowledge of her environment and are truly her raison d’etre, but her bird subjects - usually tiny, delicately hidden or just emerging out of the dark recesses of a forest - are always necessary to the stories that Cindy’s evocative and masterful pastel paintings tell.