Bird Is the Word

Whenever we try to eat a quick lunch outdoors in the middle of the city, they're suddenly all around us, scuttling at our feet, begging for food. We usually regard them as a nuisance—stupid, pushy and ugly. But they are actually gentle creatures that are smarter than we give them credit for, trained to distinguish between cubist and impressionist paintings, which is more than you can say for some regular museum attendees. If you take a moment to really look at one, they're lovely creatures: gray and black like a stormy sky, until the light catches them just so, revealing a perfect rainbow in their feathers.

Pigeons carry an enormous symbolic weight, but few of us ever stop to consider it. For thousands of years, we have lovingly raised pigeons as pets. We have raced them. We have taught them to deliver messages for us, and we even made war heroes of them. One homing pigeon, Cher Ami, served the American forces so faithfully in World War II that he has his own display in the Smithsonian—where he's stuffed and mounted. We also treat them as pests and poison them. We breed them for their meat. And we use them in horrific medical experiments. We make one pigeon into a pet, another into a pest. Same animal. But we do the same for rats. And cats. And dogs. And people. We make one human into a princess, while another is reduced to wandering the city, begging for food. Like a pigeon.

Todd Davis has looked at pigeons, and he has seen the rainbows in their feathers, and he has considered what these birds are and what they mean to us. Davis' new show at the Scribble Theory Gallery, “ PLUCKED,” captures both the alien beauty and the essential grossness of pigeons. He shows how they can be strangely terrifying when gathered in a large group, yet heartbreakingly vulnerable when encountered as individuals . . . like rats, cats, dogs or people.

Davis' Sanctuary will give pigeon-phobes serious Hitchcock flashbacks, the way it depicts silhouetted, naked people running for their lives as a flock of pigeons swoops overhead. (Although it must be pointed out that the pigeons do not appear to be making contact with this nudist mob and are actually flying in the opposite direction.) Group depicts the birds as a fecal-brown mass on an acrid, orange backdrop; claims that pigeons spread disease among humans are controversial, but this painting looks like it could give you the bird flu.

The icky side of pigeons is well-represented here, but that ickiness is only part of the story. Fence depicts a solid-black fox-like animal clutching a dead pigeon in its jaws, and it's hard not to feel for the poor bird, struck down by such an ominous creature. There is a repeated headless-pigeon motif in Davis' work (it's a lot less disgusting than it sounds); Dead Pigeon will remind you of the times your well-meaning cat made your Sunday morning a lot more interesting with the gift of a shredded bird on your living-room rug. You're struck by the abject patheticness of the thing, but also by the wonders of its construction, the rich colors you rarely spot in that flash of gray outside your office window. At 28 I Learned I Had a Vulva is just deeply peculiar any way you look at it, depicting a homely naked girl sitting next to another headless pigeon, her pubic hair the same unappealing shade of blue as the pigeon's feathers. It's tempting to conclude that the bird somehow met its demise in the midst of her vulva discovery, but frankly we just don't want to go there.

But out of all the works on display, Progeny perhaps comes closest to showing the true essence of pigeonkind. The piece depicts seven pigeons—brothers and sisters, presumably—all perched on a line and helpfully numbered for clarity. There are blue birds, brown ones, gray ones, and one bird a rather spectral white. They're all just hanging out together, sharing their pigeon secrets and regarding us with eyes that are all the more enigmatic for being wholly blank. As you gaze into the pigeon, the pigeon also gazes into you. You have to wonder: What do we symbolize to them?


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