For and About the Birds
by Josef Woodard
Where to begin with the sprawling wonder of "FLOCK: Birds on the Brink"? The vast aviary-themed show at the enchanted property of Montecito's Lotusland concentrates its multi-faceted, multi-media energies on the sprawling property. The show, which celebrates art, nature and the link thereof, as well as meditating on species in peril, extends from the indoor pavilion into the exotic garden alcoves and destination points of the estate, which was laid out by the late Madame Ganna Walska and turned into a world-famous garden wonderland.
Lucky for all involved, Lotusland occasionally lends itself to art shows and relevant projects, of which the current show is the richest and most ambitious example yet. Certainly one of the major art events of the year in the area, "FLOCK: Birds on the Brink," grandly and sensitively curated by Nancy Gifford, follows in the long shadow of the remembered bee-related Lotusland exhibition "Swarm: A Collaboration with Bees," in 2013.
Zooming out, contextually, Santa Barbara itself is a famously bird-enriched region of the world, as birders will tell you, with a myriad of species and a constant, peaceful soundtrack of birdsong that would have enthralled French birdsong-centric composer Olivier Messiaen.
But where to begin with this show? The story begins as you walk into the main gallery space, where the eye gravitates upward, aptly, to David Hochbaum's "Murmuration," a tightly-spaced flock of birds dodging and weaving below the ceiling - an ideal piece of introductory staging. Among other pieces of interest in that entryway include long bird-intrigued artist Robyn Geddes' beguiling, half-abstract canvases, including the socio-historical-aviary fantasy "Ike & Mamie Visit the East" and the Warhol-ian echoes of "Crow Opus in Black and Blue" (Mr. Geddes worked with Warhol back in the day).
But there are other hot spots and alternate routes into the experience of the show. One ripe spot to begin the viewing adventure is to settle into the comfy chair (for art's sake) of Alan Macy's "Plume Cathedra," with its ergonomic breath-controlled fan dance before your face. Gaze and listen in bemused wonderment at the installation "Flutter & Strum," a large enclosure (OK, it's a cage) arranged so that live birds trigger abstract sounds on electric guitars and drum components. Around the room, Iranian/Los Angeleno artist Fatemeh Burnes' hypnotic paintings-within-paintings, evoking nesting and thickets, share the space with Luis Alberto Velazquez's invitingly curious "Seedpod," a suspended sculpture referring ambiguously to an egg, cocoon, nest or life form module as-yet identified.
Another roundabout way into the show is literally from the outside in, with the several outdoor installation pieces demanding a walk in the park, in the most profound way. New York artist Gary Smith spent four days living in Lotusland while creating his "Nesting" pieces from natural materials culled from the property, including a large and impressive specimen at the head of the Water Garden. Sometimes, Mr. Smith's works are alluringly half-hidden, allowing for "aha" discovery moments in this magical place to get lost in - as with the figurative ritual-circular group of willows lurking behind the Theatre Garden space or the subtle placement of a small piece by the roses fringing the pond in the Japanese Garden, a thorny crown encircling a nurtured, protected middle space.
Mr. Smith's minimal, site-specific and found object-generated pieces provide an important thread of continuity in the overall scheme of the exhibition, and in this garden, accentuating the integral blend of art and nature - and this very piece of bird-friendly nature, not incidentally.
Assemblage is well represented here. Susan Tibbles' "Bird Study #547" plays up the easy admix of malleable bird movements and assemblage's flexible expressive scamperings, while Philip Koplin shows his playfully, dryly semi-scientific shelves of bird and cage-related items. Michael Long's hermetically, weirdly enchanting saloon diorama "Put it on my bill" combines badly-taxidermied fowl and a minute bar scene, plus a bad joke punch line to strangely fascinating ends, while Norman Reed's "Dreams of the Raven" is a faux antique wind-up narrative contraption, dreamy on its own terms.
Across the room, Juan Fontanive's "Ornithology" flaps its way into our awareness, with its rapidly flipping images of an encyclopedic pantheon of birds. It serves as a kind of brief history of bird life, in constant, flapping motion.
Back in a room themed around nests, and including several actual birds' nests in a display case, Maria Rend-n's "Nest" shakes things up, with its nest of spiky sewing needles. Ms. Rend-n, who recently had an impressive one-person show at the Atkinson Gallery, shows another side of her artistic persona with the large painting "Crow," an affectionate and allegory-tinged painting of said mythic bird.
Keith Puccinelli has his own twist on crow lore in art with "Burning Crow," a dark-
witted but relevant image, alert to the danger of modern, eco-challenged life to birds and other living things. (For further crow action, proceed to the Blue Garden outside, where the large but also stealthily unassuming and silhouetted "Murder of Crows" installation sits amidst the flora).
In keeping with the show's intentional diversity of form, content and media, the perspectives expressed vary widely, even as the central mantra is a veneration of nature, and bird nature, specifically. So we see the strong bird painting examples such as James F. Hodgson's strong bird "portraits," but also the knotty bird/plant mesh of Penelope Gottlieb's "Salanum dulcamara," which indicts Audubon's famed and historic illustrations, in which the dubious presence of invasive plant life mixed with birds casually romanticizes ecosystem-damaging non-native plant life.
Sonically, the pavilion is abuzz with a few steady sources, including the blissful abstraction of the rock 'n' roll/noise factor of the altered "birdsong" from the "Flutter & Strum" piece in the back room. We also hear the gentle loops and lilts of Philip Glass' "Glassworks" fluttering around the space, as part of Macedonian artist Robert Gligorov's striking and slightly dada-ist video art piece "La Leggenda di Bobe," a close-up of a man opening and closing his mouth, carefully cradling and caging small birds within.
In another video art corner, Santa Barbara choreographer Robin (apt name that) Bisio, who staged a wonderful dance piece in the Theatre Garden during the "Swarm" show, presents a video of the dance "Aigrette," with a single dancer in graceful motion by the property's Japanese Garden. Here is another example of the show's cross-referencing between the subject of birds, the junction of art and nature, and Lotusland as paradisiacal location.
Out in the courtyard, Carlos Padilla's "The Font" cleverly riffs on the tradition of the Catholic holy water font/vessel, with a sound collage including rainforest birdsongs, Tibetan chant and bells generating subtle ripple patterns on the water's surface, an inventive spiritual-natural alignment. Over in the fittingly named "drawing room," Nathan Huff's "Fortunate Find" consumes one wall and window face, with a large and tumbling series of gouache, acrylic and graphite drawings, almost like studies for artful, owl-themed wallpaper, in which the decorative meets the aesthetic, with birds in the wings. Nearby, Liza Myers' "California Towhee" is a fine painting of a nest amidst blossoms, another Lotusland-suitable piece.
Elsewhere in the outdoor portion of the program, you might stumble on the delightful surreal head-turner of Joe Shelton's "Peacock Tamed" in the plant-based menagerie of the topiary garden. Here, a leafy peacock has been "tamed" with a large rusted iron cage, addressing bird/animal incarceration with humorous pluck, given that this topiary bird is innately stationary, and peacocks aren't caged birds, to begin with.
Head over to the Lotusland swimming pool, and take note of the sight gag-fitted "Sitting Ducks" piece by R.T. Livingston, who has literally tucked duck-shaped stone sculptures within the decorative rocks behind the kitschy clam shell pool perimeter. It's another case of an artist reflecting on and working with the host site - and a fantastical site, at that - to come up with art very much of and about nature. All the while, the gentle serenade of birdsong continues overhead and in the trees.
Among its many pleasures, and calls to awareness, "FLOCK" attunes our senses to the life of birds, very much out and about and around us. The song continues.