Smithsonian American Art Museum
3rd floor North 8th and F Streets, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
James Prosek's panoramic mural "What once was is no more: Passing like a thought, flight into memory" depicts of flock of migrating passenger pigeons winging through a copse of American chestnut trees. At one time, both bird and tree filled the vast primeval forests of the eastern United States. Their dark silhouettes are inspired by the endpapers of Roger Tory Peterson's "A Field Guide to the Birds" (1934), in which bird shapes are paired with a numerical key to simulate the way readers identify species in the field. In Prosek's painting, however, there is no corresponding key. The process of identification and naming, a central pursuit of birding, is thwarted. Prosek's mural encourages visitors to find pleasure in the simple act of looking.
~Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art
Birds have long been a source of mystery and awe. Today, a growing desire to meaningfully connect with the natural world has fostered a resurgence of popular interest in the winged creatures that surround us daily. The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art examines mankind’s relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve major contemporary American artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.
The presentation of “The Singing and the Silence” coincides with two significant environmental anniversaries—the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 and the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964—events which highlight mankind’s journey from conquest of the land to conservation of it. Although human activity has affected many species, birds in particular embody these competing impulses. Inspired by the confluence of these events, the exhibition explores how artists working today use avian imagery to meaningfully connect with the natural world, among other themes.
While artists have historically created images of birds for the purposes of scientific inquiry, taxonomy or spiritual symbolism, the artists featured in The Singing and the Silence instead share a common interest in birds as allegories for our own earthbound existence. The 46 artworks on display consider themes such as contemporary culture’s evolving relationship with the natural world, the steady rise in environmental consciousness, and the rituals of birding. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the poem “The Bird at Dawn” by Harold Monro.
Rachel Berwick’s large-scale, mixed-media installation, “Blueshift,” will be on public display for the first time as part of the exhibition, as will a temporary, site-specific mural James Prosek has created for the exhibition’s gallery space. A behind-the-scenes time-lapse video of the installation of this mural is available on the museum’s YouTube channel. Artworks by each artist can be viewed in our online gallery.
The exhibition is organized by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.
James Prosek Mural Time-lapse -
"The Singing and the Silence:
Birds in Contemporary Art"
Meet the Artist: James Prosek