The exhibition A Bird in the Hand contrasts the work of Tony Clark and John Wolseley, two contemporary artists of standing, who are at the moment both doing ‘bird paintings’. From very different backgrounds and artistic positions, they approach the subject of birds in very different ways, exploring their many charms.
John Wolseley documents and analyses ecosystems of the natural world. His images of birds are based on first-hand observation of species in their natural environment. Tony Clark’s paintings by contrast draw on different cultural conventions of imaging birds and styles of art from the high to the low, including Baroque painting and Middle Eastern decorative art traditions. He is interested in the dynamics of cultural ecosystems and how they shift and shape our experience. The contrast between the work of these two artists could be seen as that between ‘real birds’ and ‘dreamt birds’.
What the artists do share, according to Robyn McKenzie, curator of this exhibition, is an inheritance in the gentleman-amateur tradition of 18th century collectors. The dilettante collector of the 18th century would combine objects of different sorts in the one display case: natural history specimens alongside cultural artefacts. The ‘wonders’ displayed in the collector’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’ were admired for both their scientific and aesthetic interest. Similarly, the work of these two artists can be admired for both their scientific/scholarly content and commentary, and their aesthetic appeal.
Birds, a constant presence even within the urban environment, are part of the ‘nature’ with which we are most familiar. Yet they remain, curious to us: their colours, their behaviours and their songs – their beauty. In the manner of the canary down the mine, the state of bird species is one litmus test of the health of the environment as a whole. Anxiety about the global environmental crisis factors into the interest in birds as a subject, along with a deeper ethics of wonder – appreciation, respect and responsibility. Not only are birds part of the natural world, they are also part of the cultural and symbolic world that we have built upon it.