Things with Birds in Them

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Richard Kraft, installation view from "Something with Birds in It" at Charlie James Gallery. Courtesy Charlie James and the artist.

I am in Wisconsin this week. My uncle picked me up at the airport Monday, and, within minutes, had reminded me that Madison was filled with nothing more than zombies and liberals—I’d come in to the Madison airport, but he and my grandmother live an hour’s drive out—and had asked me if I’d become a Valley Girl yet. “It’s just a matter of time,” he said.

He couldn’t remember what I did in California, so I told him. Had I ever seen a real Van Gogh, he wanted to know, or something Gaugin made before getting all wrapped up in that Tahitian business? And had I heard of Owen Gromme, who was one of those naturalist right up there with Remington? I hadn’t heard of Gromme, but I was in luck, my uncle told me: my grandmother’s independent living home is full of them.  Apparently, a local priest, the priest who said my grandfather’s funeral, had owned and donated a gaping number of Gromme prints to the Oak Park Senior Home, and now they hang across from the elevator, next to the stairs, on the walls of the TV room. “Before I even let you see your grandma, I’m giving you an education,” my uncle said. “The way he painted shadows, you can tell what time of day it was.”

Owen Gromme, "Goshawk attacking Mink"

The Grommes are quite good, and sometime violent, which is my favorite kind of nature painting—the painstaking, lush rendering of a hawk swooping down after it’s prey, or those majestically detailed scenes with snow on the ground mired by a mound of gore or blood. Gromme, as I’ve just learned, was the son of a Wisconsin outdoorsmen who took a job as a taxidermist at the Field Museum of Chicago at the age of 21, around 1917 or so. He then did the same thing at the Milwaukee Public Museum, where he’d spend all of his career, eventually becoming head of the birds and mammals department. All the while, he was painting anatomically precise birds, and pretty much only birds.

Richard Kraft, installation view from "Something with Birds in It" at Charlie James Gallery. Courtesy Charlie James and the artist.

Being here among the Grommes has reminded me of Richard Kraft’s show, set to close this weekend, at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown in L.A., initially just because of its title: Something with Birds in It. There are not that many birds in Kraft’s work, and those that are there are either simplified and loose, not anatomical, or pared down and precise classroom illustrations.  If it’s installation weren’t so carefully controlled, the show could even pass as a group show, since Kraft takes on so many different styles, from Walker Evans’ inspired photographs to drawings suited to children’s books. This show, according to Kraft, is all about polarities and frictions and fluidity.

The artist set out to show how different kinds of expression and reflection can coexist, how preciousness, violence and nostalgia can visually come together. Which, if you pull back and really look, might not be so different from what Gromme was doing. So why am I more likely to think about Something with Birds in It then nature-praising renderings by a Wisconsin taxidermist-turned-curator? Could it just be that Kraft steps outside himself and lets you know that he knows he’s maneuvering between complicated ideas about how the world works? Probably, and that’s why many of us end up in the contemporary art world; we want to foreground ourselves and acknowledge the problematics of perception. If you look at Kraft’s images, you can’t tell what time of day it is at all.

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