Ever since James Audubon released his stunning volume of ornithological illustrations, Birds of America, in the early 19th century, birds have lingered in the artistic imagination of America. Painters like Winslow Homer and Martin Johnson Heade depicted them with precision and a sense of romantic attachment; John Burroughs, the American writer and naturalist, famously described them as "beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds." It is from this quote that Yancey Richardson Gallery's upcoming summer group show gets its name. Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Contemporary Photography, opening tomorrow, July 21, features photography, video, and audio recordings of 19 contemporary artists, revolving solely around the subject of birds.
Photographs by Sanna Kannisto and Victor Schrader make dutiful nods to Audubon by capturing birds against a white or isolated background; Terry Evans makes the connection even narrower by photographing a museum's drawer of dead Meadowlarks, their legs each tied with identification tags. But by making this antique reference and by using compositional styles that are perhaps more spontaneous than scientifically diligent, these photographers situate their works firmly within the realm of contemporary art--and, thankfully, outside the hopelessly dry category that is dubbed nature photography.
Other works in the show are less referential, though no less fascinated by nature and human's relationship with it. Needa Madahar's "Sustenance #114" is a lush image of birds clustered around a collection of colorful, plastic birdfeeders; in a wonderful vertical diptych, David Hilliard juxtaposes an image of woodland birds with another of two men sitting at a picnic table, reading.
With so many artists featured, Beautiful Vagabonds' best attribute is its multiplicity. The stylistic and thematic ranges of its works are as colorful as the birds they each depict, and the show is thankfully devoid of any singular political rhetoric. As in birdwatching itself, the mood is curious, exploratory, and--at times--reverent.
Beautiful Vagabonds will be on view from July 21 to August 26 at Yancey Richardson Gallery at 535 West 22nd Street, NY. The opening reception will be held on Thursday, July 21 from 6-8pm.