Birds in Art 2011: the KIA’s kitsch wildlife exhibit

by Adrienne Merrild

Continuing with their avian theme this spring, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is hosting the Birds in Art 2011 exhibit, open now until July 28. Birds in Art is an annually juried exhibition on wildlife art that is curated by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum of Wausau, Wisconsin and has gained recognition continually since its establishment in 1976. [1] Birds in Art establishes an aesthetic for popular wildlife styles each year while presenting an annual selection of contemporary work selected from hundreds of pieces submitted. This famous wildlife art exhibit has become a popular annual event for the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum and this fame has allowed the exhibition to set a standard for avian art each year. The show migrated to Kalamazoo with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and follows the Birds of a Feather exhibit, which features the artwork of John Costin and John James Audubon that is on until June 24. While the Birds of a Feather exhibit focuses on the careers of two renowned wildlife artists, Birds in Art displays a variety of artists and mediums whose subjects are all focused on birds that appeal to the artists personally.

The exhibit is in the two-room gallery located at the front of the KIA museum and is cleanly curated. The visitor enters to a short description of the history of the Birds in Art show and learns that all artists involved are asked to work with two or three-dimensional mediums other than crafts and photography. As the viewer moves about the space she sees that the majority of pieces displayed are oil paintings on linen or canvas that have actually been painted from the inspiration of photographs. There is an array of small sculptures as well but these are strongly outnumbered by paintings. The presence of so many paintings is explained in the prospectus for the 2012 Birds in Art show which mandates that artworks will not be accepted if they exceed 72 inches, 150 pounds, have been shown before, or were made in years outside of 2010-2012. From these requirements we learn that this show has come to be about the tradition of setting the standard contemporary aesthetic for wildlife art rather than choosing what is most original. While originality is key for most contemporary art exhibits, wildlife art is traditionally more about what viewers like rather than what will challenge them intellectually. All pieces chosen by the Woodson Museum to represent the current popular aesthetic are of a size that would comfortably fit as a display in a collector’s home.

Ewoud de Groot, Winter Swan, 2011, oil on linen

Next to each piece is a short paragraph statement from the artist about the subject, medium and the piece’s personal significance to the artist. As previously mentioned, several pieces were based on photographs. Many of these were either taken by loved ones or depict an environment the artist finds meaningful in some way. Other pieces were commissioned for friends’ homes or their own personal enjoyment. The avian subjects range in variety from exotic birds like the African bataleur to ugly birds like the wild turkey, smart birds like the raven, graceful birds like the swan, and endearing birds like the penguin. Other sources of inspiration came from birds in harsh climates such as Ewoud de Groot’s 2011 painting Winter Swan, in which deep blues and purples suggest the frigidity of winter night while a lone, white swan stands on an icy pond. Additional subjects included birds in specific environments such as Frank LaLumia’s 2010 watercolor Taking Flight: The Bosque del Apace, and birds at a specific time of day such as Hilarie Lambert’s 2011 painting Morning Break. One aspect, however, remains constant throughout: the subjects of each piece were created for pleasure rather than any deeper reflection. All artists introduce their subjects as birds they’ve been fascinated with since childhood or have inspired them or made them laugh in some way. The Woodson Museum deliberately does not choose symbolic scenes of dead birds, bird hunting, or natural violence even though they easily could. Instead, they choose to focus year after year on the type of wildlife art that stimulates content enjoyment from the viewer.

Frank LaLumia, Taking Flight: The Bosque del Apache, 2010, watercolor on Arches paper

So how does an annually kitsch exhibit warrant such recognition in the contemporary art world? According to art historian Robert Silberman, bird art’s popularity is simply a result of the fact that people like it. Kitsch artwork can be described as any form of art that is considered to be of low quality and have inferior artistic value. [2] In his article from Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Silberman discusses the value of avian art and its status in the contemporary art world. He writes, “Much of it is properly described as decorative or illustration. Call it what you will, it is genuinely popular, and it’s popularity rests precisely on the fact that it does not challenge the viewer.” [3] The wider realm of esteemed contemporary art thrives on the critical and analytical quality of the work and therefore kitsch artworks, such as happy wildlife art, continue to be at odds with other, more respected fields contemporary art. Although bird art does not present the original or evocative, there is an audience for the Birds in Art show year after year. While viewing the exhibit in the KIA I couldn’t help but overhear two women enjoying themselves as they discussed a painting of a wild turkey. One woman chuckled as she said to the other, “Well, he certainly has attitude!” –proving that the audience for avian art is certainly present in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Notes:

[1]Birds in Art 2012 prospectus,” Woodson Art Museum,  http://www.lywam.org/birdsinart/index.cfm?room=prospectus.

[2] “Kitsch,” artdesigncafé [1992], http://www.artdesigncafe.com/kitsch-1992.

[3] Robert Silberman, “Why a Duck? Birds in Art and Bird Art,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3, no. 2 (1989), 75.

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