Saturday, May 31, 2014

Put a bird on it

This month I had the pleasure of traveling to Powdermill Nature Reserve for an open house. We got a close look at bird banding and a specially-constructed flight tunnel to test out bird-safe window glass. (More photos here!) While talking to one of the staffers and explaining the prevalence of birds in my art, he joked, "Put a bird on it!" I think he instantly regretted the implication that he was trivializing my work by referencing a now-famous skit from the TV show Portlandia, and apologized profusely. Honestly, I thought it was hilarious, and very true. People are compelled by birds (even if they don't actually want them in close proximity), and I use them in my art not just because I like them, but because people seem to connect with them and therefore take an interest in what my pieces are saying. Up until that point, I had never really thought about why people like birds so much, beyond their obvious beauty, so I went digging for the origins of humanity's love of the avian class.

A female Magnolia warbler at Powdermill's bird banding lab. Photo courtesy Maria Mangano

It turns out that humans have been depicting birds in visual culture and using them as metaphors since we've been smearing paint on cold cave walls. Birds are symbols of motherhood and fertility. They are symbols of national identity. Birds are metaphors for the human soul. In classical music their songs are famously imitated - or outright inserted - as a metaphor for hopeful existence in a complex and troubling universe. Most notably, birds appear in myth as go-betweens of the spiritual and the human world, or as gods themselves: Horus and Thoth in Ancient Egypt; Quetzalcoatl in Mesoamerica; Athena in Ancient Greece; in omen-interpreting practices such as augury and haruspex, and in stories as messengers of the gods.

Ancient Geoglyph (earth art) of a hummingbird created by the Nazca people of Peru, ca. 400 - 650 CE.

Looking at the sum of visual culture, birds have been representing every stage and sphere of human life, from infancy to after death, since ancient times. They are probably the only type of animal that is found in every culture's art around the world. So ... we've been putting birds on things for a while and we still do it today. Why?

There are a few obvious reasons that come to mind - firstly, people find birds beautiful. Their colors, motions, voices, behaviors all enchant us. Also, birds exhibit behaviors that people find relatable - courtship, nesting, and raising young, and moreover, some do these things in relative proximity to and comfort with people, compared to more secretive animals. Some birds are smart, social, and even seem to like interacting with us. In a way we're also biologically attuned to noticing birds. Science is telling us more and more about how birds interpret their surroundings, but we know that they process the world primarily with the same senses people use - vision and hearing (as opposed to animals with incredible senses of smell and touch) - and because bird appearance and behavior are adapted to appeal to those senses, we notice them too. Notably, there is one attraction that is definitely aspirational - many birds fly, and that has probably interested even the earliest humans looking to transcend our earthbound existence.

Birds aren't the only type of animal in my work, although over the past few years they've become a greater and greater percentage of my subject matter. Now I tend to seek out bird resources in book stores, head straight for the bird hall at any natural history museum I visit, and derive a lot of inspiration from other artists, old and new, who use birds in their work.

John James Audubon, Gyrfalcon engraving in Birds of America.

One thing I love about birds is, like other natural objects, how much amazing detail is contained in their features when you take the time to look closely. Their bodies have an incredible level of physical complexity, and I find this particularly beautifully illustrated in the structure of feathers, which have such an intense and fractal degree of intricacy. The scale between the tiniest barb of a vulture's flight feather and the grand, dreadful arc of its enormous wing is, to me, a powerful allegory of a microcosm that is somehow more cosmically truthful and animal-centric than the historical idea of the human body as a model of the universe.

The conceptual arc of my work has also shifted to include birds more and more. I like to explore the intersection of nature with human culture, especially in the form of museums and academia, but I try to look for it everywhere. Just like how birds are in every culture's art, I've realized that birds are usually the most common and universal link all people have to wildlife, even those living in very urban settings. People may not be able to identify the tree next to their window, but nearly everyone in the world can recognize and name a few human-friendly bird species. The permanency of that connection, even with the degree of removal most people have from nature, is a way for me to connect with others through my work. Many birds are also indicator species - the health of bird populations can tell us a lot about the general health of an ecological system - so when I make work about extinction or human-influenced changes on the natural world, birds are a useful symbol for those repercussions.

Maria Mangano, Winter wren. Drypoint and engraving.

Ok, ok, Maria, you're saying. You like birds. But they're always dead. What's with the dead? Firstly, please allow me to call out anyone who has ever seen a dead bird and not wanted to take a better look at something they don't usually get to see up close. It's your chance to bridge a little of that people-nature gap. Of course you want to look! I reenact that connection every time I make work, hoping to generate a bit of the same pull on a viewer's soul.

It's not purely morbid fascination, though. Lately, as I've begun to make pieces that are more autobiographical and personal, and less commentary/reactive/purely observational, themes of mortality, memory, and frailty have become a larger part of my work. Perhaps because birds seem fragile or delicate and have traditionally served as messengers from or symbols of the supernatural, using them to explore death, tragedy, and the afterlife in a personal way has proved to be a powerful symbol. A less interesting but still important reason is that animals that aren't moving are much easier to draw - its stationary quality allows me to have a relationship with and investment in a subject that only close observation can give.

Maria Mangano, Sometimes these things just happen. Mixed media on paper.

It would be easy to just say that birds are my "spirit animal" and leave it at that, but their historical precedence as our connection to an existence beyond what we know, and their role in natural history as our constant subjects of study, from Audubon to Darwin's finches to the current problem of window-killed birds, has positioned them at the center of everything my work is about. Until something else comes along that captures my attention and my imagination in the same way, I'll keep putting birds on things.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Aviary of the Mind" to travel to Western New York State

I'm very excited to share that my mixed-media piece Aviary of the Mind was selected to be a part of the 57th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, curated by Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at New York Magazine.

The show will be at the Strohl Art Center inside the Chautauqua Institution, and the opening is Sunday, June 22 from 3pm to 5pm. Admission to the grounds is free on Sundays, so check it out if you are in Western New York.

I'm excited to go to the opening and see Chautauqua again - I attended the school of visual art as a student in 2008 and returned the following summer to work as the Print Technician. The experience of re-centering my post-college life around my art and exposing myself to a wide range of disciplines to inform my work has influenced my practice ever since.