Birds and animals, in many media and forms

Aug. 01, 2013 @ 02:34 PM

"Animals:  Forces of Nature,” Frank Gallery, 109 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, through Sept. 8.

“Flight,” Craven Allen Gallery, 1106 ½ Broad St., Durham, through Sept. 14.

Dogs, cats, sheep, cows and most other domestic animals, as friend and subjects of humans, are the theme of an art exhibition at Frank Gallery. Birds, much more independent of us than the four-footed animals, are the overriding subject at Craven Allen.

According to Torey Mishoe, Frank’s gallery director, Sudie Rakusin and Nerys Levy, the curators of the animal show, specifically asked the artists to celebrate the animals, not to get into the politics of animal rights. At the beginning of the show, in a written introduction, the curators acknowledge animal abuse but tell us this show honors the animals and, in that way, hopes to raise awareness that these creatures have their purpose and deserve to live on our planet with the same dignity as the human race. At Craven Allen, curators Kathryn DeMarco and Bryant Holsenbeck invited artists to visualize flight, with no other parameters. 
The Chapel Hill show is filled with images of all sorts of animals in oil and acrylic, prints, photographs, ceramics, glass and fiber. In Durham, it is mostly birds, realized in paint, collage and clay. 
Among the photographs at the Frank are Jerri Greenberg’s “Morgan, Alzheimer Companion,” an image of a tiny, hairless dog being held gently by two gnarled, wrinkled hands; Peter Filene’s double exposure “Jumping in Central Park,” 2003, in which a dog jumps high for a Frisbee against a view of the ice rink at Central Park; and John Rosenthal’s “Cat in Cornfield,” 1979, a ghostly white cat striding forward out of a desiccated corn field.  I did a double take, however, when I saw Alan Dehmer’s photograph “Hand of Man.” Seen from behind, a horse has lifted his back right foot and aimed it at the man’s bent over rear end. While I am silently saying “yes!” Mishoe tells me the man is shoeing the horse’s hoof.       
Nerys Levy creates her animals in her iconic abstract style; porpoises entwine, cats curl up and uncurl, and sheep graze knee-deep in a field. There are Alex O’Connor’s birds and the Dalmatian “Polly” and Raskusin’s drawings of women out of the romantic past with their chosen guard animals. Louise Franke covers the animal world with her special brand of humor. Special fun is “Manet’s Golden,” a wonderful take on the bar maid of Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at Folies Bergere,” 1881-82.  
Rounding out these artists’ offerings on delightful members of the animal species are Susan Filley’s birds perched on top of ceramic tea pots; especially charming is the poised Blue Footed Booby. And so the exhibition is a showcase for charming, sweet, docile and wonderful animals.
In Durham, birds soar, perch in collaged splendor to the sides of trees, settle swathed in multi-colored fabric on platforms and pull small vehicles in service to humans. One artist, Harriet Bellows, sees flight as abstract form; her personal background includes 30 years as a professional pilot and she writes in her gallery statement that as she traveled between air and ground she found it became a platform for her abstract paintings. 
Every image is about the beauty and independence of birds; humans are rare in these objects, which suggest birds’ abilities to defy gravity make them superior to humans.
Holsenbeck has chosen the crow, considered the most intelligent of all the birds, and fashions them into three-dimensional mixtures of fabrics with beaks made from shards of vinyl records. DeMarco’s birds are a collaged lot; some are brilliantly colored woodpeckers, others are finches, sparrows and bluebirds. Paul Hrusovsky gives us painted crows, Matt Tomko paints super realistic owls and Cathy Kiffney offers ceramic plates covered with bird pictures.
Jean LeCluyse’s drawing of a lone twisted tree where birds nest and swarm suggests a narrative from an old western where someone lies dying in the extreme heat and the birds wait. 
Larry Downing works in clay and uses his birds to escort small-wheeled vehicles. In “See Bird” a small bird tries to balance a life boat which sits precariously on a curled shell. Luna Lee Ray’s diptych of birds soaring over a background of found papers and large letters of text again celebrates the independence of birds over humans, gravity and nature itself.
Both shows are all about our perception of animals and their relationship to the human family; the artists have missed their chance to tell the dark side of the story. There is no doubt paintings or drawings about the inhumane way chickens, pigs and cows, just to name a few, are grown and slaughtered may not sell, but at least a show with a political point is what the art world must do from time to time. These shows brought to mind the art of internationally renowned British artist Sue Coe (b. 1951), who has worked for 25 years producing drawings and paintings for many causes; the inhumane treatment of animals is high on her list. 
Not all artists want to use their art to take a political side, but as part of the art community we should encourage those that do and provide a platform for their work to be seen.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.