Ornithology: Recent Artworks by Barbara Kendrick and Monique Luchetti
Parakeets watch him from the bare nerves of the
The representation of birds is as rich and layered as any subject in art. A bird is never just a bird. Birds are a language. In our visual history and culture their images are a vast vocabulary of signs. Birds themselves are a strange category of creatures: robins and sparrows, but also ostriches, hummingbirds, penguins. They don’t all fly, they aren’t all beautiful, they don’t all sing. Their variety encourages a large, simple dictionary of birds: owls/wisdom, eagles/power, sparrows/vulnerability, doves/peace, etc. Beyond this symbolism of individual types of birds, however, the meaning of birds has coalesced into tropes for abstract concepts like freedom, escape, beauty, and transcendence. But the language of birds can also be much more complex; birds are central to deeper psychological representation, our desires and our traumas—just ask Leda and Ganymede. Alfred Hitchcock knew that birds are not just pretty. The same, feathered wings have been attached to both angels and the nightmare of flying monkeys.
Since it is so useful, bird imagery is ubiquitous, and because of this it can be a very difficult subject or material in art. It is burdened with the clichés and well-worn devices found in any system of representation that has this kind of common use and long history. Bird imagery is as prone to the construction of stereotypes and the lazy reliance on old metaphors as any language. Even the scientific representations of taxonomists and naturalists become the trite, decorative wall objects of upscale antique shops; the careful observations of Audubon become elite décor (and later reproduced to prettify countless motel rooms). It takes a kind of ruthless, fearless skill to move bird imagery into something beyond its expected terms.
Barbara Kendrick’s collages operate like a cat among the pigeons. Collage is a medium of rupture and recontextualization. Every piece of a collage works to create something new but at the same time connects to its past use. Her works create complex psychological spatial organizations that flow back and forth between the anxieties of the abject and the sublime. Kendrik’s collages have an improvisational twisting and turning that is as unpredictable yet as purposeful as a murmuration of starlings. Her references to birds shift in their roles, grotesque and beautiful, aggressive and submissive, survivor and victim. They have textures and contrasts that turn from the elegance of egrets to the bleak, stark harshness of crows and then back again. Collage always suggests absence, something came from somewhere else, and Kendrick’s intense image fragments manipulate this psychological potential into assertive, energetic turns of desire and loss.
Monique Luchetti’s drawings are acts of contemplation, meditative examinations of the bodies of birds that have been collected, preserved and tagged for study. They are birds that have been collected as roadkill, windowkill, or dead by starvation and then preserved and cataloged by a biologist in upstate New York. Despite the taxonomical differences of species, the birds are profoundly connected in their posture of death. We do not ever see living birds in this gesture of complete surrender and vulnerability; we never see living birds on their backs. Luchetti draws them with such a sure, light touch that they seem less bodies than essence, yet the specificity of the turn of a head, the direction of the eyes, or the folding of legs suggests a residue of unique personality. She layers them with a contrasting burst of color, a kind of spiritual pulse. Her interest in scientific collecting and cataloging brings to mind Susan Stewart’s observation in On Longing, “While the point of the souvenir may be remembering, or at least the invention of memory, the point of the collection is forgetting—starting over again in such a way that a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination, an infinite reverie.”
Kendrick’s severe ruptures, startling shifts and contrasts, and Luchetti’s meditative but anxious collections bring all our knowledge of bird images to a new place. They avoid the tired conventions of birds and use them to express different, but overlapping ideas. Kendrick’s intensely psychological and personal riffs on desire and loss in the context of our culture’s image excess, and Luchetti’s quiet contemplation of death in the context of ecological crisis, use and expand the language of birds away from such common tropes as freedom and escape to more challenging and relevant images of contemporary life—images of anxiety and loss.
Timothy van Laar
College for Creative Studies, Detroit