” … [W]hilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
– Charles Darwin
Moving to Baton Rouge in 1999, the painter Ed Smith discovered a landscape strange to his Yankee eyes. Brought up on Cape Cod, Smith entered an exotic world where he encountered alligators, snakes and all manner of birds in the Louisiana swamps he explored by kayak. He spent time at the Audubon State Historic Site in nearby St. Francisville where the great naturalist artist had worked on his “Birds of America.”
Once a figurative painter enamored of the “bad boys” of the mid-1980s, Smith shifted his focus to this new world, painting bold wildlife images in lush settings. He built on his knowledge by studying field guides and through research in LSU’s ornithology department, which, as luck would have it, was on the same floor as the art studios.
As an outsider, Smith brought fresh eyes to a land of often arresting juxtapositions: a flock of spoonbills, say, standing in a puddle in front of an Exxon oil refinery. Increasingly, his canvases reflected these surreal scenes as he developed a vision of a kind of avian End Time.
The devastation wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, plus a reading of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, further provoked Judgment Day imagery. The paintings in Smith’s 2008 exhibition, “The End of Eden,” offered tableaux of a world moving toward the brink, thanks to acid rain, global warming and other deadly sins. The canvases blended natural history with a kind of magic realism, plus dark humor (see Failed Diplomacy, for example).
Smith’s new paintings expand on this vision in an altogether astonishing manner. Here, balancing acts take place as birds real and imagined adapt to a poisonous environment. They huddle, mass and nest in arrangements that represent a dazzling duress. They hang on, barely.
In the remarkable Raft, a loon serves as the anchor bird for a marvelous tangle of feathered creatures-swan, kingfisher, cormorant, red-winged blackbird, etc.-floating on blue-gray water that offers a blurred reflection of their predicament. A similar stacking takes place in Weight of the World, with an ibis in the Atlas role. At once comical and alarming, these paintings engage the eye and provoke the psyche in equal measure.
Smith employs richly imaginative and absurdist means to reflect such real-world issues as habitat loss. In New Colony and Eclipse, herons, egrets and other long-necked shorebirds form Medusa-head configurations, their rookeries reduced to minimal roosts. The brilliant Last Refuge depicts birds nesting upside down in a vacuum-like apparatus (the image echoes dead game paintings of another century).
Meanwhile, the viewer of these canvases can almost smell the sulfur in the air. Glowing rain drops falling from the sky in Fall Out conjure a post-nuclear-war world, but they also bring to mind CNN footage of the bombing of Baghdad. The night heron in the painting, perched on a leafless branch, takes it all in without blinking.
In this year of Darwin, as the latest “State of the Birds” report, released this past March, offers mostly grim news, the mind fills with thoughts of evolution and extinction. Using a deft brush and glowing layers of oil paint, Smith channels this disquieted zeitgeist, exploring scenarios of survival that star those same American birds that John James Audubon rendered more than a century and a half ago. His is an inspired brinksmanship.