Entering the gallery hosting Birds in Art 2013, at the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum through Aug. 18, after enduring seemingly endless rain, I couldn’t help but be amused. Although images of herons, cranes, and egrets take center stage—especially Sandra Blair’s “Sun Catcher,” a painting of a snowy egret gracing the show’s celebratory banner—Birds in Art includes ducks aplenty. Ducks, ducklings, geese, and more ducklings swimming about as if to acknowledge the very wet world into which they’ve arrived as part of a visiting exhibition.
On loan from the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis., the surprisingly comprehensive show is remarkable for a variety of reasons. Other than featuring lively and often dramatic work, and comfortably presenting bronze, wood, and soapstone sculpture alongside 50 two-dimensional pieces, Birds in Art is an ongoing endeavor. Since 1976, almost 1,000 artists have participated in a series of revolving exhibitions with that title—19 of whom have been represented in every one of its incarnations. And the fruits of their labor should impress even viewers who’ve considered the avian theme a bit ho-hum.
The works on view are, without question, quite accomplished in technical terms. But they’re more than that. They frequently revel in bold color, like that found in Barbara Banthien’s “Scrabble,” depicting a finch perched atop a wood rack with lettered tiles, or in Lynn Waltke’s “Safe Haven,” showing another finch, its vibrant red feathers against dark spiny edges of agave leaves. In paintings like William Alther’s oil-on-linen “Green” (with its green heron) and Kristin K. Hosbein’s “Two of a Kind” (a pair of great egrets), painterly brushstrokes, despite their exuberance, don’t overwhelm the subject matter.
Conversely, the quiet palette and more subtle rendering in James Morgan’s “Freeze Up - Early December” (with tundra swans and mallards) and in Michael Todoroff’s “March Light” (showing a sandhill crane in Michigan wetlands) convey a different kind of intensity. It’s the intensity of things concealed, that spark of life, within what at first seems a still and muted environment.
Examples of hyper-realism, such as Ajay Brainerd’s “The Final Embrace” (showing a dead warbler with a rusty screw), John C. Pitcher’s “Slow Motion” (depicting an alligator approaching a white ibis), and Jenny Hyde-Johnson’s “Bateleurs of Maun” (with its trio of red-beaked eagles), are spared looking too stiff or photographic, due to their narrative bent or compositional flair.
Birds in Art also presents a variety of media. (One notable exception is photography.) In addition to its many watercolor images, and oil or acrylic paintings on various substrates, there’s Andrea Rich’s “Northern Hawk Owl,” a woodcut on mulberry paper. Paul Rhymer’s scissor-tailed flycatchers, titled “Skydancers,” places each of two bronze birds on its own basalt column. Nobuko Kawasaki’s “Early Summer,” showing a coot swimming across a tree-reflecting pond, is pyrography on basswood, and there are pencil/graphite drawings such as Ray Brown’s “Exodus” (with ravens).
Furthermore, Birds in Art includes almost as many works by women as men. Maybe I’m wrong, but that seems unusual. The exhibition catalog details numerous pieces that aren’t in the current show, but, as I’ve indicated, there’s still plenty to see at the McClung. Nevertheless, omissions revealed by the catalog point to a preference for more traditional fare when it comes to art appearing in Knoxville. Despite our show’s slight nod to abstract work, that more traditional art dominates. But it’s nothing if not remarkable, and well worth seeing.