South Carolina Birds
On view through April 2
City Gallery at Waterfront Park
34 Prioleau St.

Call us unimaginative if you like, but we find it hard to get excited about bird art. Maybe it’s the relentless parade of blue-hued herons and watercolor warblers that we see every year at SEWE. Or perhaps it’s because birds are such an everyday part of our world, so prevalent that they’re easy to ignore. Or maybe the plastic flamingoes in John Graham Altman’s yard have soured us.

In any event, the City Gallery’s latest Waterfront Park exhibition comes as a welcome surprise, substituting traditional staid waterfowl paintings with imaginative contemporary musings on the theme, with sculpture and millinery complementing collages, ceramics, and oils.

While curator Wim Roefs didn’t start out with a bird show in mind, that’s what he got, finding a surprising number of avian elements in his favorite artists’ work. However, his final remit stayed loose enough to allow related subjects (eggs, nests) and narrative paintings that just happen to include birds.

There’s even room for a dinosaur, created by Aiken-based William G. Jackson. While from a distance “Raptor” looks like a fossilized skeleton, it’s really a carefully poised steel sculpture. The tail is made up of chains, the teeth are nails, and cables help add form to the creature.

Grainger McKoy’s bronze “Wren on Lock” shares the raptor’s elegance. Captured in flight, open-beaked, the wren is imbued with life thanks to the artist’s attention to fine detail. Mike Williams derives a similar finesse from steel with “Heron,” using a few simple lines and points to suggest his subject and letting negative space do the rest. Philip Whitley’s “Murder of Crows No. 4” does more with even less; two wings on tall stems give the impression of great height. The shadows it casts on the wall behind it add to the effect.

Thankfully, even the most whimsical pieces in the show have something to say. “Sanctuary,” Janet Orselli’s impressive mixed media installation, includes a nest-style four poster bed with a grass mattress and a mobile made out of dinky winged chairs. This deluxe abode is juxtaposed with rusty cages and regular nests for more impoverished birds.

Mana Hewitt’s birdhouse (“If That Mockingbird Don’t Sing”) has an Indian influence with its enamel and gold leaf trimmings. On close inspection, its bright yellow patterned shapes turn out to be nuclear hazard symbols. Her “Canary Syndrome?” uses religious iconography as the framework for an examination of environmental abuse.

The more traditional artworks in the show have a similar ingenious streak. Jason Amick examines scientific and faith-based knowledge in a series of acrylic images; in “Knowledge Seeker 1,” his blindfolded subject wears a jacket as yellow as the row of wheat stalks in the foreground, indicating that the seeker will grow as straight and tall as the crops. Perching on his hand, a white owl leads him through a dark wood. Like many of the birds in the show, the owl symbolizes wisdom, knowledge, and potential freedom.

Not all of the art works as well — offerings from Janet Kozachek and William Thomas Thompson are busy and unfocused in relation to, say, the powerful minimalism of Tom Stanley’s “Unknown Birds” or Loren Schwerd’s fascinating “Costume from Cover.” This ceremonial plumage consists of silk neckties complete with designer labels. But there’s plenty here for every taste, including contributions from well-known artists like Leo Twiggs, Tarleton Blackwell, and Colin Quashie.

South Carolina Birds was originally developed by Roefs for the Sumter Gallery of Art in 2004. It’s still fresh and accessible, much more than a mere adjunct to SEWE. It proves the potential of the Waterfront Park Gallery’s remarkable space, where contemporary artists’ flights of fancy are given room to take shape.

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