Art My first encounter with John James Audubon the artist who’s best known for his publication The Birds of America containing over four hundred life sized prints of bird species in North America when as a teenager I raided my Dad’s vinyl collection. Although I generally ignored his Jim Reeves back catalogue, I was quickly attracted by An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (spotify) and his song, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, an autre piece about disposing of the wing'd "vermin" in a variety of cruel fashions. With wild abandon, Lehrer sings:
We've gained notoriety,
And caused much anxiety
In the Audubon Society
With our games.
They call it impiety,
And lack of propriety,
And quite a variety
Of unpleasant names.
But it's not against any religion
To want to dispose of a pigeon.
At the age of about thirteen I didn’t know who Audubon was, or why he should have a society, and didn’t much care without the internet to help me, but I did very much enjoy singing his name (later I discovered the Audubon Society is essentially the US RSPB). It wasn’t until years later when Liverpool Central Library had an exhibition about his book that I made the connection and grinned as I realised that I finally understood one of Lehrer jokes decades after I’d first heard it. This Guardian article reminds me that was as late as 2004.
One of the reasons the Central Library was interested, apart from owning a copy of the book, was because in 1826, Audubon visited Liverpool to fund and publish his portfolio. He apparently stayed with the Rathbone family who were resident at the Greenbank House just around the corner from where I live in Sefton Park, a period in which he continued painting, presumably because of the mass of wildlife on his doorstep.
All of which makes me the perfect audience for The Spectacle of the Lost, the new exhibition at one of the Liverpool’s unsung art venues, the University of Liverpool's Victoria Gallery & Museum on Brownlow Hill, for which I attended the private view this evening. Curated by Laura Robertson of The Double Negative, it’s a gathering of works by the Birds' Ear View Collective, a group of artists interested in how birds interact with the modern urban environment.
Cleverly, the show begins in the museum’s own permanent display of Audubon paintings and drawings (the largest outside of the US), giving the visitor some visual tutelage in what the artist achieved. These are considerable images illustrating the visceral endeavours of a hawk pouncing on partridges or the noble, proud American wild turkey, with its tall neck and slightly arrogant features.
The power of Audubon’s achievement is undimmed by modern technology. Yes, television and film can build narrative and knowledge through editing and voice over and photography an even greater sheen of realism, but Audubon’s creatures have a presence, the unreal nature of painting somehow capturing aspects of their behaviour which still vividly leap from the page or canvas.
The rest of the show seems to seek to illuminate the brilliance of Audobon’s observations with an interest in the mortality of birds, with paintings and photography which underscore Audobon’s success in gifting his subjects such a rich inner life with a strong message of how man, at the risk of sounding like a Werner Herzog voiceover, in failing to appreciate their beauty ultimately causes their doom.
In the next room are further, rarely displayed examples of Audobon’s work, contrasted with the first pieces from the modern collective by John Barraclough. whose immense watercolours on paper show birds in their specimen status from the collection of National Museums Liverpool. Having seen examples of the originals when I worked at Liverpool Museum (as it was then) I can attest the accuracy of the fine brushwork on display here.
Yet, these prone eyeless bodies are somewhat depressing for all their formal brilliance. They are scientifically important and at the Museum many are held in environmentally controlled areas with single existing examples of their species locked in bombproof safety, modern attitudes protecting the birds more now than we did when they were alive apparently.
That interest in the mortality continues into his Impact drawings which mimic the subtle remains of the shape a bird makes when hitting a window, white pages covered in scratches, and the photographic prints made with Alexandra Wolkowicz across the walls in the main space depicting birds which have fallen fowl of the city, carcasses found in diverse buildings across New York like the World Finance Center Gym and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Splayed across black backgrounds in shapes not unlike Audobon's own action paintings, the colours of the bird's feathers remain colourful even in death. To be honest I'm not sure how we're supposed to feel about them. Perhaps like the Audobon's what we're seeing is a record of bird behaviour, the repetitiveness of a particular kind of death within an environment stolen from them by humans.
The evening was topped off by a performance from Rob Peterson, whose audio work reading samples from Audobon’s diary also features in the space. Having flown in himself early this morning, he fittingly read entries describing Audobon’s own first impressions of Liverpool. He mainly talks about how polite we all are especially when giving directions, but notes an example of man's intervention, a caged bird near the breakfast table.
Perhaps it’s a bit ironic that my first inclining of Audobon is through a satirical song about man’s cruelty to bird and now I’ve attended an exhibition on just that same topic. It’s the kind of exhibition which is enjoyable because it’s interesting, because it asks questions and challenges the visitor. It certainly speaks to my own inherent double standards in being repulsed by the sight of the birds who had little chance against man’s progress, but adores roast chicken.
Until Saturday 25 August 2012.