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When Birds, Butterflies are ‘Endangered’

Emily Arthur traces the fragility of nature at Museum of Wisconsin Art on the Lake

Aug. 30, 2016
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Birds and butterflies inhabit the work of Emily Arthur, floating in varying modes of opacity and transparency though her prints. While there is a sense of delicateness and light, there is also a somber heaviness, appropriate to the underlying content of her subject matter. 

The exhibition, on view at the Museum of Wisconsin Art on the Lake, is titled “Endangered.” In this project, Arthur focuses on the California gnatcatcher, a diminutive bird rather sparrow-like in its appearance. It is significant for its role in the coastal California ecosystem, but given the allure of that prime real estate, its fate is troubled by the presence of developers. 

Arthur sees the gnatcatcher as symbolic of the struggle between nature and the ongoing appropriation of land for building projects. In pieces such as Dark Songbirds with California Sage & Shot, the bird is shown as a black silhouette, its body elongated as if it were dead. A large butterfly hovers in one corner of the piece, marking the rugged fragility of the natural world. The composition is balanced by floral images in the corners and enlivened by the textural patterns Arthur incorporates in her screen-printing process. The patterns are repetitive but their handling, ever so gently smudged, reads like computer or DNA code. Her nuances of color and line make the blackness of the bird even more stark.

This approach is found with variations in many of these works, and while the gnatcatcher is a key figure, other works draw from nature and a connection to the cosmos. Ursa Major (My Beloved) features the great bear of the sky, circled in a medallion of deep blue and green clouds. The colors run down in rivulets on a gold-printed background of flowers, while a white translucent form of a deer stands proudly, antlers held high. The overlays of color and form and the notions of the animal kingdom on earth as well as in the mythology of the sky reflect again human references to the fauna of the world. Like the multilayered approach of Arthur’s printmaking, all is connected.

“Emily Arthur: Endangered” continues through Oct. 12 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art on the Lake inside St. John’s on the Lake, 1800 N. Prospect Ave.

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