Birds of America: Explorations of Audubon by Larry Rivers and Others
101/Exhibit, West Hollywood
April 1 - May 13, 2017
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, APR. 2016
The world of Victorian ornithology was a ruthless, high-stakes arena, full of danger and ego, alliances and feuds, other people’s money and bragging rights. The competition to be the first, the most correct, and the most famous discoverer of bird species was, pardon the pun, Darwinian. Most of this played out in extremely polite British society of course, and in certain important ways resembles the contemporary art world, with its public veneer of chic sophistication and good behavior at fine art galleries, behind which is a world in which people covet one of very few spots of favor, court investors and collectors, and are always on the hunt for what is new, and somehow undiscovered, something to which they can lay claim, and call their own -- often literally.
Birds of America consists of a survey of works by influential but in some ways underappreciated American artist Larry Rivers (1923-2002). Made in the 1990’s, Rivers was inspired by the re-release of the monumental John James Audubon (1785-1851) book of the same name, and his extensive bird series is a unique reinterpretation of Audubon’s seminal illustrations of bird and plant life in America, rendered in his own inimitable multi-dimensional mixed media technique. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I was raised in a family that had birds named after us. My middle name is Gould, as in ornithological icon John Gould (1804-1881), a central figure in Darwin’s circle and later a colleague of Audubon’s as well, in that jolly old Victorian London community of professional academic naturalists. But one doesn’t need a family connection to appreciate the power, beauty, soaring stylistic eclecticism, and full gamut of emotions that 101/Exhibit’s current show offers viewers. For as acclaimed naturalist David Attenborough one remarked, “What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal, as a bird?”
As the representatives of the Rivers estate, the West Hollywood gallery is committed to widening the audience and celebrating the important work of the artist, through direct engagement with contemporary generations. To that end, the exhibition goes far beyond a survey of Rivers work -- though to be sure, that foundation is a rewarding experience in its own right. Rivers had a gift for both exploding conventions of picture making within a modernist tradition, returning both a folk-infused vivaciousness and art historically solid, subversively dark humor to the proceedings.
In his pieces one clearly sees that seeds were planted for those fortunate enough to know about his considerable output. In Birds of America, the gallery thus brought Rivers together with dozens of contemporary painters, each of whom was given the choice of an entry from the book and full freedom to interpret at will, much as Rivers had done before. The wide variety of results is as dazzling and unexpected and optically charged as an acid trip at the Natural History Museum. It succeeds at its mission to inspire a reevaluation of Rivers; and it further succeeds as a wide-ranging snapshot of the current state of figurative paintings in Los Angeles.
In such books as Audubon (and Gould! Sorry, can’t help it) produced, what we are used to seeing is a panoply of gorgeous birds whose anatomy and plumage and natural habitats are rendered in a consistent high-classic style wherein the diversity is among the species of animal rather than the aesthetic of their depictions. Here that construct is inverted, it is the species of artists that vary, as each of them displays their uniquely evolved traits. This is a perfect armature on which to hang a painting survey. It’s not organized by visual affinity or shared mediums per se, as one might expect from a thematic group show. Instead it’s designed to convene the diversity of contemporary practice. It would be a wild riot without this central idea of the Rivers/Audubon nexus of inspiration. Instead it is a cultural safari; birdwatching through the lens, not of binoculars, but of art history.
“These days,” writes critic Peter Frank in the exhibition catalog, “the most convincing painting, no matter how reductive it may be in form or composition, feels driven by personal conviction, unquenchable curiosity, and persistent urgency, and we feel that kind of heat emanating from the new work in this show.” And it’s true that there’s a decidedly psychological aspect to this, in terms of what can viewers tell about the artist’s personality, judging by the birds they each chose to portray. As well, you can measure their individual stylistic distance from conventions of realism by their stylistic distance from the originals they interpreted. You can learn something about them as people by following their choices, since you have access to their starting point. It’s like seeing them thinking, figuring out for themselves where they stand in the evolution, stylistic rather than biological, of art in America.
There will be a gallery talk with Peter Frank and 101/Exhibit owner SLoan Schaffer on Sunday, April 30 at 2pm.
Artists include Jason Shawn Alexander, Pedro Barbeito, Brett Diemer, Zara Monet Feeney, Robert Fleisher, Thomas Frontini, Chambliss Giobbi, Daniel Horowitz, David Jacobs, Aaron Johnson, Nelson Loskamp, Patrick Neal, Paul Paiement, Tom Sanford, Jorge Santos, Kristen Schiele, Alfred Steiner, Eric White, Kent Williams, and Eve Woods.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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