December 2003


Wings of Hope, Wings of Peace
National Sculpture Society
New York City
July 24 - October 24, 2003

Birds, Birds, Birds

Louis Torres

NOTE: Readers are urged to view the works of sculpture in the online exhibition (click on the page numbers to access the images) before reading this review. Click on "Page 1," then on numbers 2-6 on the sidebar. Return to this page by repeatedly clicking on your browser back button.

What a pleasure it is to attend an exhibition of sculpture that is modest and undidactic and that mostly delights, where one can meander at will and simply enjoy the experience of looking! No crowds, no guards, no explanatory labels, no audio guides--just a couple of dozen works arranged in a single grand space, allowing the eye to wander freely and pick out pieces that invite closer examination.

Such was my experience recently while viewing the National Sculpture Society's Wings of Hope, Wings of Peace in its dramatic 25-story, skylit exhibition space--the lobby of the Park Avenue Atrium--which showcases the Society's revolving exhibitions year-round. Since the lobby was not designed as an exhibition space, the lighting is a bit dim, but that is a minor quibble. New York City is fortunate to have such a grand showcase for contemporary figurative sculpture.

The twin themes of this exhibition--mostly of birds, from barn owls and eagles to egrets and seagulls--reflect the Society's intention of commemorating the second anniversary of the attacks on America of September 11, 2001. An unobtrusive introductory wall text (and the exhibition's modest brochure) note that, "from the Hellenistic Victory of Samothrace to the contemporary American Eagle and Dove of Peace, birds and winged figures have represented . . . success, power, freedom, and harmony." Not all of the works were suggestive of such lofty themes, but many of them embodied other qualities that we humans value.

Some pieces, though expressive and well-crafted, were less effective than they might have been, however. I consider these first, saving for later remarks about those which were especially inspiring or touching. I wanted to like Pigeons by Marion Roller more than I did, but experienced the essential whiteness (a chalklike quality not apparent in the online image) of this sensitively rendered piece as a distraction. And however appealing one might find works such as "Swan Lake" It Isn't and When the Going Gets Tough (I do not), they seemed out of place in this exhibition. Even more incongruous, because unrelated to either birds or winged figures, was Community,by Barry Johnston--a work less effective in person than it appears online.

The most problematic sculpture, as well as the largest and most ambitious, was Stanley Bleifeld's War Memorial, which presented too many obstacles to understanding and, hence, enjoyment. A frightening eagle is perched at the top, and a male figure is discernible tumbling down, but all the rest (human legs and feet, and at least one hoofed animal's leg) seemed a jumble, difficult to integrate into a meaningful whole and therefore impossible to describe clearly. The work may be anomalous for Bleifeld, as his Hawk Owl is, by contrast, a powerful impressionistic rendering. A past president of the National Sculpture Society and a National Academician of the National Academy of Design, Bleifeld is also the creator of one of America's most popular contemporary public sculptures, The Lone Sailor at the U. S. Navy Memorial and Navy Heritage Center in Washington, D. C.

Seabird, by Roberto Franzone, is virtually abstract. The conspicuous absence of any suggestion of the bird's head, once noticed, was difficult to ignore, and I wondered how many viewers would discern a seabird in its graceful marble shape, without the title. Further distracting was the tapered base made from the same marble as the bird, as if the two were related and meant to command nearly equal attention.

A more effectively stylized sculpture is Expecting to Fly, by Leo Osborne, its title somewhat of an understatement. Carved from burl wood, which must be an exceedingly difficult medium, this hawklike bird seems to peer downward in rapt concentration, about to swoop onto its prey. Osborne's sculpture is beautifully conceived--the curved sweep of the body, powerful wing on one side, ending in the bird's splendid beaked head, where sharp eye and brain together trigger the instinct of flight and the capture of prey.

Altogether different are the more naturalistic depictions of birds, the best among them capturing the distinctive qualities of various species. Among the most memorable is Bonaparte's Gulls, by Beverly Benson Seamans. Whether viewed from a distance or close-up, this graceful bronze of two gulls attached at the wing--one having landed, the other still aloft, about to touch down--is wondrous to behold. Also by Seamans is Egret Fishing, the bird's wings arched upward, its neck curved, as it walks through shallow water, searching for the tell-tale movement of fish beneath the surface. The carefully polished thin bronze surface of the base has a reflective property that makes it appear to be water.

Elliot Offner's cranes and herons are magnificent creatures. Dancing Crane is regal in its simplicity--standing tall, wings spread, and neck held high. Impossible to describe or capture in a single image is the energy emanating from the contorted pose of Posturing Crane--one wing of the large bird outstretched, the other tucked in, while the longest of long thin necks arches backward. Like these works, Leaning Heron portrays a large bird in all its splendor, with wings spread and body and neck arched upward and to one side. (See also a crane by Offner--not exhibited--appealingly installed in an outdoor setting.)

Responses of a different sort are evoked by two depictions of smaller species, on a more intimate sculptural scale. Bart Walter's The Dove is a black figure of a bird--draped backwards, evidently dead, over the angled top of a white pedestal, against which its crown rests. Whatever political implications Walter may have intended in depicting a dove in this manner, he has given the fact of death in nature a poignancy that only art can, offering a reminder of just how important living creatures are to the lives of humans. The expressive, detailed modeling of The Dove is not incidental to its emotional power.

I save for last mention Elaine Franz Witten's Doves (titled The Mourners in the exhibition)--the work that touched me most, the one among all that I would wish to own. There is no drama here--no posing, no dancing or fishing or flight, no death--just two mourning doves, each atop its own mahogany pedestal (one slightly higher), looking at one another. Witten's comments on the work are as apt as the simple title she gave it: "The mourning dove has a beautiful and simple silhouette, pure form and long tail. I emphasized these elements minimizing detail in the design of this small sculpture. I chose a pair since this is how they are invariably seen in nature." (For delightful photographs of actual mourning doves--the birds derive their name from their call--see the website of the Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, in Indianapolis, and this personal website of doves nesting.)

Clearly, birds offer an endless source of inspiration for figurative sculptors. The National Sculpture Society would do well to mount a similar exhibition a few years hence.

See also Note on National Sculpture Society Annual Awards Exhibition, 2003.