The 250: “Beautiful Vagabonds” at Yancey Richardson Gallery

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2011 by David St.-Lascaux

Random Access Ornithology

by David St. Lascaux


Neeta Madahar, “Sustenance #114″ (2003). Courtesy Yancey Richards Gallery.

I’ve wandered the world in search of life
bird by bird I’ve come to know the earth

– Pablo Neruda

AS IT HAPPENS, I OPENED nonrequired reading, a short prose collection of wicked book reviews by Polish Nobelist poet Wislawa Szymborska, discarded from a New Jersey library, to a random chapter a couple of hours before going to a promising art gallery opening about a subject near and dear to me: birds. The chapter was “In praise of birds,” a review of a book one needn’t read, and it begins:

I like birds for their flights and non-flights. For their diving into water and clouds. For their bones filled with air….

I wanted to like “Beautiful Vagabonds,” a collection of bird photos by photographers in Yancey Richardson Gallery’s stable. (The list is long: Richard Barnes, Barbara Bosworth, Terry Evans, Jitka Hanzlová, David Hilliard, Jodie Vicenta Jacobson, Simen Johan, Kahn & Selesnick, Sanna Kannisto, Louise Lawler, Needa Madahar, Esko Männikkö, Paula McCartney, Alex Prager, Leslie Thornton, Sebastiao Salgado, Bertien van Manen, and Masao Yamamoto.) The show, after all, unexpectedly included a non-photographic treat – Louise Lawler’s “Birdcalls” (1972/1981), the open French door Hudson arbor highlight of DIA Beacon, on loan from the LeWitt Collection (the CD not for sale).

Birds have been a lifelong passion: I like them for less poetic reasons than Szymborska, but my affinity has been there nonetheless, since childhood, when I first drew birds with crayons (you may have, too), and learned their calls from my mother. Memory is persistent: to this day, I can’t see a meadowlark or downy woodpecker without remembering her. In this context, Terry Evans’s supersaturated iris print, “Field Museum, Drawer of eastern Meadowlarks, various dates and locations” (2001), of rows of dead meadowlarks, elicited a reflexive response: that it was speciocidal, pointless and repulsive, antithetical to, say, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America; while David Hilliard’s intelligent “Feeders” (1993), featuring a downy in suet and two men at a picnic table, seemed ingenuous, and captured the quixotic awe of birdwatching at close quarters, of, as Szymborska rhapsodized, “feathered jabots… nests, [and] eggs.”


Richard Barnes, “Murmur #1″ (2005). Courtesy Yancey Richards Gallery.

This ambivalence sums up “Beautiful Vagabonds”: the show is a hodgepodge of photos that happen to be of birds. Esko Männikkö’s “Untitled (Flamingo II),” from the series “Harmony Sisters,” recalls Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Robert Mapplethorpe without being beautiful, ditto Sanna Kannisto’s set of sterile hummingbirds in, for example, “Act of Flying #16″ (2006); while Richard Barnes’s excellent “Murmur #1″ (2005) is a black & white masterpiece of a twilight swarm of birds above a flying saucer domed pavilion, and Simen Johan’s vivid, crimson-eyed whites among crimson berries, “Untitled #162,” from the series “Until the Kingdom Comes” (2010), shows that shooting birds in a tree requires knowing which birds, and in which tree, to shoot (joke’s on us: they’re artificial). On the other hand, the otherwise gifted, prolific photomagicians Kahn & Selesnick’s leaden, stagey “King of the Birds” (2007) reflects a perennial, ever-populist fascination with gothic, surreal horror, exemplified by Alexander McQueen’s current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that is somehow found in fine art galleries (when in fact it’s a fantasy photo-illustration, where Frank Frazetta meets René Magritte; if it’s intended as a subtle silhouette of Abu Ghraib, Kahn & Selesnick are in well over their heads); while Neeta Madahar’s almost three-dimensional “Sustenance #114″ (2003), another feeder shot, presents a clever, animated (and anthropomorphically populated) scene in double entendre, as both a voyeuristic picture window and an avian shark tank feeding frenzy diorama.

Remembering that photography itself was technologically innovative not so long ago, one piece in the show is technologically distinctive, if unintellectual: Leslie Thorntonʼs video from her “Binocular” series. In this widescreen video, a black parrot in circular vignette is show to the left of a simultaneous kaleidoscopic version of its image, also in circular vignette. The effect is a bit strange and eerie (there seems to be no audio), but, as always, the  kaleidoscopic image is gorgeous. This piece would’ve been more compositionally interesting if the left half was a square (with a highlighted circle) and the right the kaleidoscopic circle. But in the end, it’s just a lava lamp, unlike some of Thornton’s brave political work, or the avian, cetacean and insect mandalas and audios made by artist/scientist Mark Fischer.

I suppose that the disparate works in “Beautiful Vagabonds” hold analogies to the diversity of ornithological fauna. If that was the intention, the show would’ve been much more effective with photos of the artists adjacent to their works. In this way, we could’ve seen their eyes, beaks and plumage, too, and connected their works to their physiognomies, divined something about their thought processes from their expressions. That would’ve required a bit of curatorial imagination, and a self-deprecating sense of humor. But I bet it would’ve made me like the pictures more, and that people would’ve loved it. There is, after all, so much to like about birds.

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