SAN DIEGO — Birds are flying high in art exhibitions in San Diego.
"Audubon: Science Into Art" at the Natural History Museum was organized by the American Museum of Natural History to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the nation's pre-eminent nature artist in 1785. It has come to the museum under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service with the financial assistance of Kenneth and Dorothy Hill. (He is a member of the board of directors of both the Natural History Museum and the San Diego Museum of Art.)
The exemplary support of the Hills is evidenced, as well, in "Birds in Art: A Century of Growth" at the San Diego Art Museum. Works in that exhibition were selected for the most part from their personal collection of 18th- and 19th-Century natural history books and albums.
The Natural History Museum exhibit is, frankly, more educational and historical than aesthetic in character, including as it does many photographic copies of paintings and documents, contemporaneous photographs and even objects such as Audubon's rifle (named "Long Tom") as well as works of art.
The exhibition through such materials accompanied by succinct, informative texts places John James Audubon in a historical context that makes us appreciate his success in achieving his desire to copy nature "in her own way, alive and moving."
The master draftsman-watercolorist conveys a liveliness in his subjects, especially the "birdness" of birds, that eluded (and still eludes) most other artists who have been satisfied with what is assumed to be the descriptive accuracy of science.
The exhibition also includes other images, such as a porcupine and an American marten, that remind us of Audubon's sensitivity to animals other than birds and his ability to project their nature as well. Audubon generally exercised restraint in this respect, avoiding the tendency of lesser artists, including his sons, John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford Audubon, to portray their non-human subjects experiencing human emotions.
The exhibition continues through July 31.
The Art Museum show is organized according to technological means of reproduction, but its interest is primarily aesthetic. The categories of book and album illustrations include metal engravings and etchings, wood engravings and woodcuts, hand-colored lithographs, along with chromolithography, whose principles are clearly explained and characteristics succinctly described in a handsome and useful (but unillustrated) brochure available at the museum.
Most particularly the exhibit clarifies the relationship between technique and art. Informative wall texts accompanying the works compare and contrast their qualities.
Again, the extraordinariness of Audubon's achievement is manifest. His birds have a life absent in those of Alexander Wilson, honored as the "Father of American Ornithology" and in those of Titian Ramsey Peale, who was also stronger with respect to accuracy than to animation. Edward Lear, remembered more as a humorist than accomplished artist, tried to project the "personalities" of the birds he illustrated.
In seeking to portray the appearance of birds accurately, the finest of these artists and scientists, such as Mark Catesby, John Gould, Josef Wolf and Joseph Smit, provided great sensual pleasure as well as technical data. There seem to be no homely birds. The brilliance, subtlety and variety of forms and colors remind us, if we need reminding, that art originates in the physical world.
This exhibition of works, homages to nature as well as significant technical achievements, reminds us, too, that art and science, like religion, are different routes with the same destination.
It continues through Aug. 10.
"Birds" at the Michael Dunsford Gallery (828 G St.) is a very different kind of exhibition.
Artist Robert Smith, whose source is his imagination rather than nature, explores the symbolic use of birds in his recent paintings. Typically, he composes his works using several rectangular panels with expressive, representational forms.
The groupings of images--such as birds, volcanoes, machine parts, men and women, cryptic symbols and even Godzilla--suggest narratives, but untraditional and non-linear in character. Among the artist's consistent themes are eroticism, violence and magic.
Smith has commented in reference to these paintings, "Here in San Diego we're living on a border where two different worlds exist. In Mexico, a woman who wants a perfect lover buys hummingbirds heads that she wraps in red silk threads (appearing in several paintings). This kind of magic goes all the way back to the Aztecs.
"In our world, industry is the magic. The show is about where these two magics--maybe I should call them ways of knowing things--come together and how they can be used to help one another heal the splits represented by the edges where the images meet. I also want to show how animals like birds have a different knowledge than we have but that it's no less valid."
Smith's works are strange and disturbing. But they are powerful. They pull you back, as much physically as psychologically, for repeated viewings and a deepening of knowledge.
The exhibition continues through Aug. 2.
Finally, J. Dewers (345 Market St.), has on view through July 31 a selection of glorious bird illustrations by Gould, Peale, Wolf and Smit, among others.
It is a wonder that as ordinary a bird as the starling, regarded as a pest throughout much of the United States, is a creature of such great beauty. It is also a wonder that works of such quality are so accessible.