Saturday, January 27, 2007

Audubon in Boston

The great ornithologist and artist John James Audubon was staying in Boston on Feb. 24, 1833, when he called on Ethan Allen Greenwood at his Columbian Museum. Greenwood asked Audubon to help him identify a live eagle he’d purchased from a man who hunted fox with spring-traps in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

As Audubon recounted the tale in his 1835 “Ornithological Biography” (I recently read it in the rare book room at the Boston Public Library): “One morning the trap was missing but on searching for it, it was at last discovered more than a mile from its original place, and held the bird by one of its toes only. The eagle flew about through the woods for several hundred yards, but was at last with difficulty secured.”

Audubon coveted the golden eagle, a 3-foot-long female with a 7-foot wingspan. He convinced Greenwood to sell it to him and set off home with the cage under a blanket, planning to draw it for what would become his landmark volumes of etchings, “The Birds of America.”

The 47-year-old Audubon had been living in Boston since the previous summer. The city, his wife Lucy wrote to a friend, “is a more interesting place than any I have seen in the United States, and where we met with a most cordial welcome and obtained eight subscribers to our work [‘The Birds of America’].” Audubon exhibited sketches at the Boston Athenaeum in August and then headed up to Maine and New Brunswick looking for seabirds to sketch. By October, he was back in Boston.

“I must acknowledge that as I watched his eye, and observed his looks of proud disdain, I felt towards him not so generously as I ought to have done,” Audubon wrote of the golden eagle. “At times I was half inclined to restore to him his freedom, that he might return to his native mountains; nay, I several times thought how pleasing it would be to see him spread out his broad wings and sail away towards the rocks of his wild haunts; but then, reader, some one seemed to whisper that I ought to take the portrait of the magnificent bird; and I abandoned the more generous design of setting him at liberty, for the express purpose of shewing you his semblance.”

Audubon spent a day watching the caged bird, the next considering how to depict it, and the following day mulling “how I could take away his life with the least pain to him.” On the recommendation of a friend, Audubon concluded that the easiest method for himself and the least painful for the bird would be to asphyxiate it with smoke. So he shut the bird up in a small room, sealed with blankets, and a pan of burning charcoal.

“I waited, expecting every moment to hear him fall down from his perch; but after listening for hours I opened the door, raised the blankets, and peeped under them amidst a mass of suffocating fumes,” Audubon wrote. “There stood the Eagle on his perch, with his bright unflinching eye turned towards me, and as lively and vigorous as ever!”
Audubon shut the bird in again. When he checked in at midnight, “he was still uninjured, although the air of the closet was insupportable to my son and myself.”

Undaunted, Audubon started the charcoal burning again the next morning, but this time added sulfur. “We were nearly driven from our home in a few hours by the stifling vapours,” Audubon wrote, “while the noble bird continued to stand erect, and to look defiance at us whenever we approached his position of martyrdom. His fierce demeanour precluded all internal inspection, and at last I was compelled to resort to a method always used as the last expedient, a most effectual one. I thrust a long pointed piece of steel through his heart, when my proud prisoner instantly fell dead, without even ruffling a feather.”

Audubon arranged the bird as he had planned for his painting, with its wings curled back as if chugging into the air, and toiled for about 60 hours or two weeks, depending on when he recounted the story. “I sat up nearly the whole of another night to sketch him,” Audubon reported, “and worked so constantly at the drawing that it nearly cost me my life. I was suddenly seized with a spasmodic affection, that much alarmed my family, and completely prostrated me for some days.”

The stroke, Audubon wrote to a doctor friend, “seized on my mouth & particularly my lips, so much so that I neither could articulate or hold anything. My good dear wife was terribly frightened, and yet acted so promptly with prudence & knowledge that I was relieved, as I already said, in about one hour.” By April, he was well enough to take Lucy to New York and plan a Labrador expedition, for which he set off in May.

In Audubon’s watercolor, the proud brown raptor flaps into the sky above icy mountain peaks with a white hare pinched between its talons. For the background, Audubon invented a tiny hunter (believed to be a self-portrait) shimmying across a log spanning an icy ravine, with his rifle and a dead eagle slung on his back.

At top: “Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)” by John James Audubon, 1833; watercolor, pastel, graphite and selective glazing, 38 x 25 1/2 inches; Collection of the New-York Historical Society, accession #1863.17.181. Reproduced with permission of the historical society, thanks to the very kind assistance of Jill Reichenbach.

Walton Ford

In John James Audubon’s 1833 watercolor of a golden eagle for his landmark natural history volumes “The Birds of America,” the brown raptor flaps into the sky above icy mountain peaks with a rabbit pinched between its talons. In the background, a tiny hunter (believed to be Audubon’s self-portrait) shimmies across a log spanning an icy ravine, with his rifle and a dead eagle slung on his back. It’s a little detail that points at the violence behind Audubon’s achievement.

It’s that backstory, that tale of conquest and colonization and accumulated injuries against nature, that is at the heart of Walton Ford’s allegories. “Tigers of Wrath,” at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 28, assembles more than 50 watercolors by the Southfield, Massachusetts, artist. He paints in a style purposely reminiscent of Audubon’s 19th century work, complete with fake foxing to make the pieces appear a century and a half old. But here the antique look – as in Kara Walker’s adoption of 19th century cut paper silhouettes as her signature medium – is deployed to dissect the past, to suggest that karma is coming for old and ongoing sins.

Ford’s 10-foot-wide painting “Thanh Hoang” (1997), at left, depicts a tiger hovering over a glass ball atop a hill. Penciled words indicate the fleeting thoughts of the cat – chasing, sleepless, hungry, seeking revenge. It’s inspired by an old tale of a tiger chasing a horseman who stole her cub, but twice eluded her by tossing out glass balls in which she sees her tiny reflection and is tricked into thinking it’s her cub trapped inside. “And so, deceived by the zeal of her own dutifulness, she loses both her revenge and her baby,” text jotted on the painting explains.

Ford paintings – in watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper – catalogue the heartless cruelty people inflict on animals. One artwork depicts an okapi of the Congo forest stretching out its purple tongue to lick honey that is the bait for a trap that will simultaneously photograph and shoot the animal in the face. Other works point to the disastrous results of our carelessness and shortsightedness. In “The Starling” (2002), a spoonbill, hornbill, woodpecker and owl bring food in supplication to a giant starling, the king of the invasive species (introduced to North America as part of a cockamamie scheme to bring to the United States all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare) threatening to wipe out the natives. Some like “The Grand Tour” (2000), above, speak of our cluelessness. Here Ford imagines a mandrill captured in Africa and taken to London via Naples. At top, he jots painter Oskar Kokoschka’s complaint, when sketching in the London Zoo, of a “big, solitary mandrill, who profoundly detested me , although I always brought him a banana in order to make myself agreeable.”

And then there are scenes that seem to be omens of our coming comeuppance. In “Sanctuary” (1999), Gorillas dig up and drag off the remains of the great naturalist Carl Akeley (1864-1926) of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, called the father of modern taxidermy and founder of the world’s first gorilla preserve. He had himself buried in the side of a volcano where the last mountain gorillas survive. In “Novaya Zemlya Still Life 1596” (2006), a polar bear has ravaged European explorers come searching for the northwest passage and only their clothes and junk remain.

At times Ford’s paintings can feel silly and tacky, the morals-of-the-story forced, the compositions recalling those famous paintings of dogs playing poker (not that those paintings aren’t awesome American icons, but that’s another story). His prints – at least based on the examples in the DeCordova Museum’s just closed exhibition “Going Ape” – feel stilted and dried up, lacking the vividness and vitality of his watercolors. And often the stories Ford references are obscure and he offers few clues to decipher them. “Astoria 1812” (2006) depicts a grizzly bear eyeing a man’s bloody, bare feet sticking out the end of a hollow log. Without the wall text, who’d know that it illustrates the adventure of an 18-year-old Irish immigrant, working for tycoon John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, who was sleeping in a hollow log when a bear tried to root him out? He sprung out, hollered, threatened the bear with a stick and escaped up a tree.

Many contemporary realists fudge their lack of draftsmanship with a soft focus or diversionary razzmatazz (see the Iraq documentary drawings by New York-based Steve Mumford, a Boston-native and Museum School alum). But Ford actually has realist chops. At his best, he uses his astonishing technique to sweep you up in his sad, disconcerting narratives.

In “Delirium” (2004), above, a golden eagle choking up gray smoke flaps into the air above a snowy hilltop. Its talon is caught in a trap that it drags up with it. The painting is meant to show the ugly truth behind Audubon’s eagle painting. It conflates a number of incidents (see following post): a hunter who accidentally caught the eagle in a fox trap, Audubon’s failed attempts to smokily asphyxiate the bird once he purchased it, and suffering a stroke himself after he finished drawing it. Like an avenging spirit, Ford imagines Audubon as a tiny hunter in the background, stricken, collapsed into the snow at the top of a wintry hill.

“Tigers of Wrath: Watercolors of Walton Ford,” Brooklyn Museum of Art, NYC, Nov. 3, 2006, to Jan. 28, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: "Madagascar" (2002), "Thanh Hoang" (1997), "The Grand Tour" (2000), "Serpent Eaters" (2002),"Nila" (1999-2000) and “Delirium” (2004). All paintings reproduced courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photograph of "Delirium" (and probaby others) by Adam Reich.

Michael Mazur

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts offers a quickie survey of Cambridge artist Michael Mazur, presenting 25 prints from a collection of nearly 400 prints spanning five decades that he donated to the museum in December 2005. The 71-year-old is a big shot in Boston art, known for his technical experimentation, particularly with monotype prints, but looking at this show it’s hard to see what the fuss is about.

Here are the trapped, haunted wraiths of his “Closed Ward” and “Locked Ward” etchings and lithographs from 1963 to ’65, with which he first gained notice. They were based on his experiences as a volunteer art therapist in a mental institution. They emulate Goya and German Expressionism, and come across as overwrought, trying too earnestly to be moody and expressionistic.

There are fussy realist works from the ‘70s that recall the stuff David Hockney and New Yorker cover artists were doing then, a moody 1985 drypoint self-portrait, and figure studies from the ‘90s. His 1984 triptych “Wakeby Night” (above) is a schmaltzily pretty panorama of birches and sunflowers lined up at the sea edge, inspired by his memories of summers at Wakeby Lake on Cape Cod. It mixes lithography, woodcut, monotype and chine collé in one of those pastiches that were all the rage in the ‘80s.

Mazur returned to expressionism, by way of traditional Chinese painting, in the ‘90s. You can see it developing in a series of flora prints in which he employs woodcuts or wood engraving. His 1988 print “Texas Tree” (left) depicts a thick, knotty tree. “Mind Landscape (Cascade)” (1995) subtly layers woodblocks, with their grain emphasized, to produce an image resembling a dreamy field of blossoms. They’re very pretty and very decorative, somehow bringing to mind Ipswich artist Arthur Wesley Dow’s Asian-inspired woodcuts.

Mazur’s recent abstract paintings of curious flat, linear shapes floating in soft fields of color struck me as uptight when I saw them at Barbara Krakow Gallery on Newbury Street last spring. A screenprint here coming out of that same style, “3 Elements” (2005), still seems uptight, but somehow I feel more willing to give it a break. A wavy brown line snakes in and out of a rectangle with a matching snaky line cut out of it. A black shape resembling a cartoon cloud floats behind. There’s something about this cloud, how it jauntily teases the stuffy design in front, that makes me smile.

“Michael Mazur: The Art of the Print,” MFA, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, Dec. 16, 2006, to June 17, 2007.

Note: The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art has an extensive biographical interview with Mazur here.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

‘Big Bang!’ at DeCordova

Here’s my review of the DeCordova Museum’s new exhibit “Big Bang! Abstract Painting for the 21st Century.” It’s a show that nicely frames a trend: abstract painting that mimics the look of science and technology.

It’s another example of our technologically modified, synthetic Sims world as the primarily art subject of this moment. Some of the works included are, from top, Julie Miller’s “o(11)”; Barbara Takenaga’s “Angel”; and Cristi Rinklin’s “Ecstatic Beautification.”

Walking around the show, I kept thinking about what else is happening in contemporary abstraction, and much of the exciting stuff isn’t painting.

Mainly what’s missing is crafty abstraction (the blatantly handmade stuff made in rebellion against our manufactured environment) and go-for-broke attitude.

At the crafty end, I think of Bostonian Isabel Riley’s knit and quilted sculptures (see “Heaven’s Gate” at left); Providence artist Cristin Searles’ cloth sculptures; and Fort Thunder alum Jim Drain’s tribal-style knit sculptures. MassArt’s “Crafty” show last fall included a number of people making strong work in this mode.

There’s that whole rainbows and diamonds school of contemporary abstraction – folks like Australian Josh Petherick who get written up in The Drama.

And then I think of Providence’s Mat Brinkman (above) and Bostonian Eric Shaw, whose prints and drawings are filled with more wild energy than most everything at DeCordova.

Their work often includes people or monsters, but their characters are abstracted in a way that doesn’t look all that different from, say, Laurel Sparks’ “Nature’s Clown” (left) in the DeCordova show. If all the stuff in “Big Bang” that looks like constellations, smoke, dot matrix printouts and microscopic organisms counts as abstraction, then do you include Brinkman or Shaw?

“Big Bang! Abstract Painting for the 21st Century,” DeCordova Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, Jan. 20 to April 22, 2007.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Anthony Falcetta

Danvers artist Anthony Falcetta’s bright, lush abstract paintings at Judi Rotenberg Gallery look like something you’d see if you gazed straight down from the window of a jetliner. This aerial landscape effect is most apparent in the canvas pictured below, “Yellow Open State” (a reference to a Red House Painters song, I do believe), which has squarish passages of green, gold and brown that look like plots of land seen from a high angle and a blue strip along the top that reads as a narrow band of sky.

Falcetta, according to the gallery, fashions himself as a modern day abstract expressionist. “I try to look at things with active eyes and a blank mind; a finished painting is the result of that kind of looking, plus a physically direct painting process,” Falcetta writes in an artist statement. “I don’t design ahead of time and follow a plan; it’s relentless revision, thoroughly subjective and guided by emotion and gut instinct…”

The resulting oil paintings are animated and improvisational, with lots of bravura brushwork. Falcetta’s work comes out of the tradition of de Kooning and Kline, but with a hotter palette than those guys. The most direct correspondences are to Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings. (His website also features mixed media constructions that appear inspired by early Rauschenberg and Johns.) Falcetta alternates between big open passages of bright turquoise, oranges, golds, forest greens; stripes the width of his brushes; scratching with the end of his brushes; and scrawled oil stick lines. He beautifully layers his paint, putting on some thick and opaque, some thin and brushy, some dragged across the surface so that it picks up the rough texture of the paint underneath.

This is old school action painting by an obviously talented artist, but it feels like something’s missing. Falcetta seems like a guy still finding his style who’s skilled enough to pull off a jazzy reincarnation of the swaggering Cedar Tavern-style paint-slinging that he emulates. That’s an achievement. But I hope he’ll find ways to speak more personally, and more of today.

(Pictured from top to bottom: “Surface to Air,” 2006; “Yellow Open State,” 2006; “After the Flood,” 2006; “Making the Reach,” 2005.)

Anthony Falcetta, “Ongoing Events,” Judi Rotenberg Gallery, 130 Newbury St., Boston, Jan. 4 to 27, 2007.