By Eric Huang
Featuring a motley collection of paintings, sculptures and on-site installations, “Bird in the Hand” is a new exhibit at the nearby Palo Alto Art Center that plays on the human fascination with birds and aviation. The exhibit focuses on birds as vehicles for cultural expression and as subjects of fascination for artists.
The most captivating part of the exhibit is the diverse ways in which birds are portrayed, with the works of 48 different artists on display. In some pieces, birds are portrayed as fierce tyrants of the air; in others, they are framed as docile pets and domestic animals.
Some of the most impactful pieces on display focus on the ferocity of the avian species. Deborah Simon’s “Flock” is a 3D installation featuring a torrent of birds alongside models of World War II allied planes strung from the ceiling. The figures cast shadows against the wall of the gallery space, where birds and vehicles of war intermingle and become indistinguishable from one another. An imposing mixed media sculpture, Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor’s “However” is a fantastical winged creature constructed out of found materials. The piece is primal and raw due to the large scale of the piece and the ruggedness of the materials she employs.
Other works, like the headlining piece in the exhibit (Michael Hall’s “I Hold You Tight to Keep You Safe”), focus on the vulnerability and docility of birds. Hall’s painting depicts three birds, immobile, clutched by a human hand. This playfully cynical piece explores the idea that the tighter you hold onto something, the more it tends to slips away.
The myriad of styles on display in the exhibit reflect how birds are portrayed across cultures. Hung Liu’s oil painting entitled “Fat Bird” incorporates calligraphy, thick contours and flat colors that are characteristic of East Asian paintings from antiquity. Jessica Joslin’s “Zeus and Io,” as its name suggests, plays on tales from Greek mythology.
“Bird in the Hand” seeks to explore the unique visual qualities of bird anatomy and movement. Feathers, with their showy shapes and colors, are often incorporated into decorative garments, an idea that Carlos Villa explores in “Third Coat.” The piece is a large, avant-garde fur coat constructed out of assorted cloth, canvas sheets, feathers, bones and hair. Clashing colors and textures, flamboyant hazel-colored feathers lie against a backdrop of blue-striped cloth framed by ebony fur trim. Dennis Hlynsky’s “Line Birds” is a time lapse video portraying birds’ flight patterns in the sky. Here, bird silhouettes create mesmerizing loops and curves above an otherwise ordinary suburban street.
Simple but with an incredible number of avenues to explore, the premise of “Bird in the Hand” is strangely refreshing. What makes “Bird in the Hand” such an effective exhibit is the way it leverages both 2D and 3D works to make full use of the gallery space, giving off the impression that the art center itself has transformed into a lively, colorful aviary. Together, the artists prompt us to reconsider the impact that our oft-overlooked feathered friends have on our imagination, our culture and the cities we inhabit.
“Bird in the Hand” is on view at the Palo Alto Art Center until Apr. 10, 2016.