Elizabeth Turk’s Art Takes Flight at Orange Coast College’s ‘ThinkLab LIVE .002: Extinct Bird Cages’

Photo courtesy Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion

It’s Elizabeth Turk’s first day at her open studio at Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion. One wall is covered with dozens of silhouettes of extinct birds; there’s a video of her at work setting up sketches and preparatory drawings, and then at play, rolling around the gallery in a desk chair; there are fabricated glass birds in a grid, metal versions of the same design and several bird cages. Investigate, and you’ll discover a couple of nests, petite eggs inside, a camera recording the goings-on, as well as a live webcam aimed at a bald eagle in Catalina. This intellectual and visual feast is only the beginning of Turk’s generous allowance into her creative process, “ThinkLab LIVE .002: Extinct Bird Cages,” with things ramping up a couple of times a week over the next month. Consider this less a review than an excited rumination on what now exists—and what’s coming down the path.

While some of this may sound familiar to those who saw the artist’s “Sentient Forms” at Laguna Art Museum four years ago, it isn’t a duplicate effort. At Laguna, one room was devoted to books, pictures and other items that inspired her work with marble, all items behind glass, separating us from her work and keeping us at arm’s length. This time around, however, everything is out in the open, less museum exhibit than a curio-shop version of Turk’s mind. Accenting the “Change=Life=Extinction” and “Extinction=Change=Life” signs hanging on one wall, this show’s ecological concerns are clearly part of the project, but it is also solidly about things missing, honoring the holes left in nature’s tapestry. Its repetitious imagery works like mini sledgehammers, breaking down our defenses; its variety moves us from one consideration of loss to the next.

Many of the individual birds in the silhouettes are unidentifiable to anyone but an ornithologist, while the artist has made neat handwritten notations on others, detailing their habitats, food, the year of their disappearance, etc. They’re black profiles against a white background, the negative space freezing them in place and time as if a block of ice; the small color-palette grids painted next to them, reminders of a rainbow of feathers that have been wiped away. On another wall, the same outlines have been superimposed over pictures of clouded skies, the bird’s blue-tinted ghosts now distinct holes in the space where they should be. In other printouts, tinted sepia, the shadows are superimposed atop each other to a degree that the resulting jumble resembles a pile of lifeless bodies, choked by the thick pollution surrounding them. The disarray makes them indistinguishable from each other; in others, it blots out the sky. Another series is of white shadows, in several layers against a blue background. The birds look as if they’re tumbling out of the heavens, a thick snowstorm of corpses.

There are designs of birds on high wires placed at different levels so they resemble notations on a musical score. I have no idea if the figures represent actual notes, but the tease that they might is almost intriguing enough to counterbalance the darker idea that if it is a song, we’ll never hear it.

Turk’s black metal birdcages on stilts, the roofs pointed like rockets (or bullets), are fabricated on each side with a design. Unclear until you bend down and look closely, it’s a posse of hunters all holding rifles. While most cages offer serene, even bland, surroundings, as if to suggest that the clipped-wing pets inside couldn’t possibly be unhappy in their little jails, Turk’s have entirely the opposite effect. Human figures, in silhouette like the birds on the gallery walls, are duplicated in row after row, an army facing the animal trapped inside.

The remaining pieces (so far) include: watercolor designs for wind chimes, with historical and interpretive notes; a kind of memento mori glass bird design reflecting the individual looking at them; and metal wheels and half-circles decorated with birds on wires. And instead of origami paper to make birds, Turk has paper with the birds already on it.

This is all the start of an outdoor installation Turk is designing, a large presentation that will eventually make its way to Catalina Island Museum. A planned giant bird cage large enough to allow humans inside, it should be an impressively oppressive reminder that when ecologically sensitive birds start dropping, then it’s only a short time before human beings also hit the skids. It also proposes that we’re the ones who should be in cages, if for no other reason than to prevent the inevitable.

Thinklab LIVE .002: Extinct Bird Cages” at Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa (714) 432-5738; orangecoastcollege.edu/DoyleArts. Open Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., noon-4 p.m. Through Oct. 4. Free.

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