Feathered friends

Tim Hunter and Michael Murrell, Coach House Gallery

The word "birds" conjures up images of the most ubiquitous forms of wildlife, the pedestrian robins that raid our feeders and the roustabout pigeons that mob our park benches. But the creatures show uncommon mystery and charm in an exhibition at Swan Coach House Gallery, pithily titled Birds, devoted to a pair of artists who have made fowl their prey.

A swarm of Hitchcockian crows hangs overhead in the gallery's foyer, but threat is the furthest thing from artist Michael Murrell's mind. Instead, these black birds, with their pin-dot eyes and squared-off nun's-habit tails, appear exceedingly gentle. The sensuous, primitive curve of many of Murrell's wood carvings gives his birds an exceptionally endearing quality. Their purity and forthrightness is not unlike what absorbs so many people about folk art. His simply rendered but aesthetically potent lovebirds, redwings and woodpeckers feel like they have more in common with the plainspoken approach of the whittler or the decoy-maker than the conceptually overburdened agenda of the fine artist.

Equally captivating are Murrell's human figures seen in large sculptural works. Murrell places his cleanly rendered men and women in "baskets" of swarming birds that encircle the people like cages or oyster shells. The sculptures have the transcendent quality of religious art, like shrines or icons. This fusing of human and fowl conveys an almost ecstatic, infectious reverence for nature.

Murrell's fellow bird-watcher is Tim Hunter, whose vision is equally streamlined and consists of black-and-white woodcut prints of varied species, from the "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker" (thought extinct, but recently observed in Arkansas) to an especially captivating "Great Horned Owl."

Like Murrell, who uses only fallen trees to create his wood forms, Hunter's interest in nature runs deeper than mere content, but applies to form as well. In addition to his prints are various bird silhouettes painted in asphalt on squares of cement to provide a quirky juxtaposition of industrial materials and natural forms. Though Hunter's images are more emotionally restrained than Murrell's, together the artists make a convincing case for revering the natural world that envelopes us.

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