Many museums around the region have closed in response to the COVID-19/coronavirus threat. The Spencer Museum of Art’s galleries are closed through May 15.
The proverbial canary in the coal mine gets a haunting and inventive new look in New York artist Matthew Day Jackson’s exhibit, “Audubon in the Anthropocene,” opening March 21 at the Spencer Museum of Art.
Media reports of the impact of climate change on the world’s avian population are on the increase. Jackson endows the news with dramatic visual impact in his portfolio of 12 images based on unpublished etchings from John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” reworked to place the birds in apocalyptic settings. The Spencer Museum acquired the works in 2016 and is now putting the entire portfolio on view for the first time.
“I knew I wanted them for the collection when I saw them at the annual Editions/Artists Book Fair in New York in 2015,” said Kate Meyer, the museum’s curator of works on paper. “They‘re so lush, even though he’s adding color and content different from the way they appear in Audubon’s ‘Birds of America.’ They’re so compelling, they draw you in, the way the beauty of nature can draw anyone in. Then, if you spend more time with the content, you see something melancholy or even frightening.”
In addition to 12 color intaglios of birds, the portfolio includes a title page etching featuring images and ideas that inspired the artist. “That’s where Jackson is describing the potential apocalyptic scenarios that he incorporates in each of the 12 bird images,” Meyer said.
The references are subtle and encompass myriad human failures to protect not just birds, but the earth and all its inhabitants. They include the Chernobyl disaster, represented by an image of the Ferris wheel in the devastated town of Pripyat, Ukraine, that appears in Jackson’s print depicting mallard ducks. A detail from Pieter Breugel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death” forms the background for his image of the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, victim of the logging that destroyed its southern swamps habitat.
As outlined in the texts on the title page, each of the 12 prints in the show embodies a theme, including nuclear war for his depiction of the American Flamingo, and overdevelopment for his rendering of a Summer duck or Wood duck against a background that includes an image of scaffolding from a 1960 lithograph by Herman Landshoff depicting skyscrapers in progress.
The title of the portfolio, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” comes from a 1920 poem commenting on the destruction of war by American poet Sara Teasdale. Jackson incorporates one line from Teasdale’s 12-line poem across the bottom of each print (where they serve as titles), heightening the catastrophic undertones of the images and the poignancy of his theme.
“I think he’s grappling with the tipping point people feel we’re at,” Meyer said. You think of the burning in Australia, and all the endangered species. It’s like the sublime — beautiful and terrifying. That is the Anthropocene, the world we have shaped.”
Jackson has long been a critic of the excesses enacted in the name of the American Dream, and humanity’s refusal to address the destructive consequences of our actions. On the title page, he speculates about the reason: “Many of us believe that there is heaven, or technology, or something that will fix our problems, or somewhere else where we can go . . .”
“Audubon in the Anthropocene: Works by Matthew Day Jackson” opens March 21 and continues through July 5 at KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Mississippi St., Lawrence. For more information 785.864.4710 or www.spencerart.ku.edu.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Matthew Day Jackson was published by Collaborative Art Editions and printed by Christopher T. Creyts. All images courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art.
There Will Come Soft Rains
Poem By: Sara Teasdale
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.