Art Review: ANF exhibit explores themes of birds and flight

Bird-themed works forgo old formula

David Comstock, “Even Birds Are Chained to the Sky,” acrylic, enamel, graphite, pastel, paper, canvas.

David Comstock, “Even Birds Are Chained to the Sky,” acrylic, enamel, graphite, pastel, paper, canvas.

David Comstock, ‘One Flew Over’

At ANF Architects, 1500 Union, through April 7. Call 901-278-6868.

Even a bird-brain — no insult intended to our fine feathered friends! — could figure out the theme of David Comstock’s exhibition “One Flew Over ” at ANF Architects through April 7. If the large paintings and their titles didn’t let the cat out of the bag — sorry, birds! — the proliferation of cute handmade birdhouses certainly would. Yes, this show is — groan! — for the birds.

Enough already.

With 13 mixed-media paintings and constructions, some ranging up to an expansive 68-by-64 inches, and about 20 of those birdhouses, Comstock explores themes of birds and flight and their metaphysical implications. The birdhouses, whimsical and gaily colored yet functional, make the connections explicit, but as an artist committed to abstraction, Comstock must tread the delicate line between content and medium.

As Willem de Kooning said, “Content is tiny, very tiny, a glimpse.” So in the most successful of these pieces, Comstock opens the field to glimpses of hints about his aerodynamic, irresponsible and flighty motifs without sacrificing abstraction’s obligation toward material and surface.

The artist, who normally exhibits with L Ross Gallery, has for this show forgone his typical black-and-white abstractions that pay a heavy debt to Franz Kline in their dense circles and strokes — though in a smaller format — for a freer, more expressive approach and a more thoughtful use of space.

Yes, standing behind these efforts is the majestic figure of Cy Twombly and his divine scribbling, but Twombly seems to be on the minds of many artists recently, perhaps because this great American abstract painter died in July 2011 and we are still in a state of mourning.

Unlike some other young(er) artists, however, Comstock seems to have absorbed this irresistible insinuation and turned it to his own purposes.

The more categorical pieces tend to hit us over the head. Fixing clusters of twigs and branches to a wood surface in the service of not seeing the forest for the trees smacks of sophomoric lightning bolts — “Hey, I’ve got an idea!”— while the series “Birds of a Feather,” followed by “White,” “Red,” “Grey” and “Orange,” large pieces that consist of uncountable amounts of actual feathers fixed to the surface with enamel and acrylic, are immediately attractive with their intensely, obsessively varied and shadowed textures but ultimately feel as dead-end as the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

However — and this is a humongous “however” — in two large paintings, “Not All Birds Are Meant to Be Caged,” and Even Birds Are Chained to the Sky,” Comstock is perhaps prefiguring the direction of his creative future. These impressive works, fortunately hung side-by-side, the first with an ivory and cream background, the second in a thrilling robin-egg’s blue, like a sky by Tiepolo, are two of the three most beautiful contemporary paintings being displayed in Memphis now; the other is Brian Bishop’s little “Missing Lawrence” in “Present Tense,” at Dixon Gallery and Gardens through April 14.

Anyway, Comstock revealsin this pair a new confidence, combined with insouciance and an improvisational flair, and a concern with texture and depth, that surpass his previous work by a magnitude.

Perhaps the sense of freedom that comes close to recklessness symbolizes the flight and freedom of the birds that form the basis of this exhibition’s motif, or perhaps it’s simply a case of an artist finding his form.

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