Birds have appeared in artwork for a long time, and they’ve had a lot of different jobs. In the 1820s and ’30s, John James Audubon chronicled every fine-feathered friend he could find in lavish detail with a whiff of scientific aloofness in the copperplate etchings and book, The Birds of America. In the 1990s and ’00s photography endured an extended obsession with rows of birds on telephone wires. In 2012, painters and crafters in the Etsy-sphere had become so ubiquitously birdbrained, affixing silhouettes of ravens and sparrows to anything an image could possibly be affixed to, that they were lampooned in an episode of Portlandia.
Just as you might think you couldn’t possibly stand one more bird image, along comes Emily Arthur. She’s part Eastern Band Cherokee, part scientist and full-time assistant professor of printmaking at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In her exhibit at University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Gallery, Emily Arthur: Endangered, which she made in collaboration with the Moore Laboratory at Occidental College in Los Angeles, she brings science into art, art into science, and the bird back down to earth. In her screen prints and etchings, birds and other animals have all the scientific accuracy of Audubon’s, none of the clichés, and layer upon layer of elegantly drawn evidence of careful study, both personal and scientific, of natural objects and natural systems.
One print “Gnatcatchers and Blue,” begins to sum up Arthur’s whole approach: A bold, blue butterfly imposed over maps of Mexico alludes to migration. Subtle grids of dots and numbers in the background represent avian DNA sequences. Partial diagrams could be satellite maps or chemical composition charts. Sunset-hued washes of color are hand-painted over the mechanically reproduced print. There’s barely a foreground. The most prominent part of the image is the birds. Here, they amount to a scientific rendering, a death toll and a tender eulogy, all at once. Thirty-one gnatcatchers (small, wren-like birds), limp with death, are organized in tidy rows as if they were a bar graph.
“Birds are very responsive to changes in the land,” said Sheppard Gallery curator Paul Baker-Prindle. “They act as a stand-in for notions of crossing boundaries, and they figure heavily in indigenous folk traditions.”
Baker-Prindle met Arthur through a national group of curators he works with. While the Venice Biennale is in progress, the group secures gallery spaces in the city and exhibits work by indigenous artists from North America in a bid for what they believe is long overdue international recognition. Arthur exhibited through this arrangement in 2011 and 2013.
In a glass case in the middle of the gallery are three actual dead gnatcatchers, specimens from UNR’s Museum of Natural History that were collected in the Virginia range in the 1950s. Baker-Prindle said they became part of the exhibit as part of an effort toward interdisciplinary collaboration between art and science departments at UNR and also as a real-life reference item. The birds in Arthur’s prints, with their delicate statures, deflated bodies and delicately curled claws resemble the real specimens.
Titles such as “Threatened (with Deception)” suggest impending extinction. Animals look as if they’re frozen in specimen collections. Perfectly executed exertions of technique, such as shooting a hole through a print with buckshot, begin to add up to a message of environmental doom, while in other prints the darkness and foreboding are overlaid with lush, muted, almost celebratory colors.
All these references and layers never become confusing or overdone. What really takes flight in Arthur’s exhibit is a practiced ability to flip the bird cliché on its head and bring an overused image back into a realm where it’s rebranded as a symbol of reality, harsh, stark and beautiful all at the same time.