Not So Secret Avian Icons
Walking into DePaul Art Museum’s exhibit of Tony Fitzpatrick: The Secret Birds, on view through August 21, one confronts the artist’s collection of colorful collages. A bird lies in the center of every work. Each depicts a different species and each bird is surrounded by imagery drawn from pop culture. Most pieces have a border of cigar bands, matchbook covers and magazine cut-outs. What does this observance of the everyday all mean?
Fitzpatrick uses everyday urban imagery and a common man’s naïve, even comic book style, to express the role religious faith can bring to a common man’s life and to one’s art. In these works, birds serve as the main symbols for a variety of spiritual ideas, much the way the Catholic Church employs saints.
The exhibit is divided into two parts. A smaller room houses earlier works, part of DePaul’s permanent collection. These pieces reveal the influences on Fitzpatrick’s work. The Music of Slaughter, 1999, is a black and white drawing that recounts Chicago’s slaughterhouse history while, at the same time, alluding to Picasso’s Guernica. Ghost of a Chicago Fishshack from 2006 hints at Chicago artist Notley Maddox’s Great Dark Bird series of the mid ’70s. And Baby Doll from 1999 is an image of a shapely woman “entertainer” viewed through a keyhole—a clear homage to Ed Paschke. (Fitzpatrick is also a poet and has published a number of books, one of which is dedicated to Paschke.)
The more recent work is housed in the larger gallery. There is a strong ritualistic feel to this group. Working in mixed media, including collage, he starts with a subtle, almost invisible, grid on which he adheres his imagery, almost always a border cobbled together from bits of magazines, cigar bands, or other printed material.
In the image’s center is the main subject, always a bird. And in the center of the bird’s body is a collage variation of the Catholic “Light of Christ” symbol. In Christian iconography, this symbol is sometimes depicted as rays of light emanating from behind a dove (symbol for the Holy Spirit). Fitzpatrick uses it to identify the bird as a spiritual entity (a little like a nature worship spirit or even a Catholic saint). Sometimes, he even adds a halo behind the bird’s head to reinforce the metaphor. The result is that the works feel very much like Greek Orthodox icons—items of veneration.
Fitzpatrick’s Catholic upbringing permeates the images in this room. You will find churches, church bells, crucifixes, etc, judiciously sprinkled here and there in the backgrounds of his images. Fitzpatrick also includes lines from his poetry within each image. Perhaps the most pointed in this collection are the two lines: “You can hang on the cross, Or you can pound in the nails” included in Peregrines of Chicago (the Guardians of St. Mary’s) from 2014.
In a particularly poignant piece (one of a few without a border), he pays homage to 13 famous female singers in Lunch Drawing #37 (City Bird). He cites their names, starting with Edith Piaf (“piaf” is French slang for sparrow) at the top, continuing with Czesha, Kelly Hogan, Amy Winehouse, Etta James, Emmylou Harris, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Joan Baez, Aimee Mann, Aretha Franklin, Neko Case, and finishing with Annie Lennox at the bottom.
The piece is festooned with musical notation within cartoon speech bubbles, bits of empty crossword puzzles, and the ever-present grid of fine lines. In this piece, the “light of Christ” symbol on the chest of the bird begins to resemble a CD. Fitzpatrick’s grandmother was a strong influence on him and this particular work alludes to her saying about birds: “for the price of a crust of bread you can hear God sing.”
Fitzpatrick’s blending of religious sources and surrealist inclinations are clearly evident in the earlier piece, Trojan, from 2006. The central figure is a gladiator with a horse’s head mask making him resemble a minotaur. The figure holds lightning bolts in his hands (symbolizing Thor or maybe Zeus) and is pierced with arrows like St. Sebastian. In the background, a war is brewing with fighter jets and exploding bombs filling the sky while, on the side, a house “weeps” over the carnage. Is the figure the aggressor and are the jets trying to bring down this Mediterranean Godzilla?
One pair of images from 2014 makes the point about the universality of religions. Lunch Drawing #58 represents Palestine and has a green long-beaked bird as the central image on a pink background with the Palestinian flag in the upper right. In the background is an outline of the Dome of the Rock. Fitzpatrick’s two lines of verse read: “The birds gather greenly, and fearful, bathed in ghostly rocket light.” The phrase “May peace be upon you” appears in Arabic along the bottom.
Lunch Drawing #59 has a black and white, short-billed bird on a field of blue. The Israeli flag is in the upper left and the verse reads: “She flies from Tel Aviv to the wall, moving the silences tree to tree.” The bottom of this image holds the same phrase in Hebrew. But this image’s background is filled with starbursts and skulls that conjure explosions rather than spiritual light. Sadly, neither image is particularly peaceful and the phrase rings a little hollow, like a closing prayer that no one really expects to be answered.
I have one quibble with the installation of the recent works in the larger room. These pieces are rather small, averaging around 9 x 12 inches. They require close inspection and careful contemplation. But several of the pieces are nearly seven feet up from the floor. No one but a few basketball players can appreciate those.
Fitzpatrick is clearly a product of Chicago’s Imagist aesthetic. But he combines the preciousness of Cornell boxes with the gritty toughness of Nutt and early Paschke, creating a narrative style that is poetically stirring. His gritty style is in part a result of his being a tattoo artist for a time. And the fact that he is self-taught endears him to Chicago collectors, who tend to be very fond of outsider art. But don’t be fooled. Fitzpatrick is not an outsider artist. His thinking is deeply philosophical. He is also an accomplished draftsman when he needs to be. His naïve style is just that—a style.
Michel Ségard is a past reviewer for the New Art Examiner and a freelance author and designer of exhibition catalogs. He taught desktop publishing at the School of the Art Institute for 11 years.
Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 32-33