There are many problems that plague contemporary sculpture. Abstract sculpture has yet to have the kind of cultural renaissance of Abstract Expressionist painting or the Color Field movement. Art that lives in three dimensions doesn’t necessarily translate well online, and it’s especially hard to appreciate anything that isn’t obvious in its extreme difficulty (like a Michaelangelo marble carving) if you don’t know what you’re looking at. There’s also the problem that much of contemporary sculpture is just…not that interesting to look at, but that’s a conversation for another time.
None of this is true for my new favorite sculptor who also happens to be a parrot. Her name is Hannah.
Hannah is a 24-year-old African Gray Parrot and also a sculptor. Her work is being shown in an exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary called “Parrot Architecture.” Her owner, Joseph Havel, is a widely exhibited postmodernist American sculptor. Technically, the art is a collaboration between them. His working relationship with Hannah began 6 years ago.
I learned from Molly Glentzer’s Texas Monthly profile that Hannah has layers of soft gray feathers, a bright red tail, and the demeanor of any artist: a little unapproachable, but unmistakably mesmerizing. When I first saw this profile, I was ready to hate Hannah’s work. It’s not that I dislike birds (Defector loves birds as a matter of law) or that I dislike gimmicks even. What made me hesitant was that usually in situations like this, where an art exhibit is getting press for something that isn’t the art, it’s because the art isn’t very good. It is inherently interesting that a bird is making art, I guess. But it’s also inherently stupid if the art sucks. I feel the same about books by 20-year-olds, paintings by (most) children, and movies staring the spawn of other actors. If the headline isn’t about the quality of the art itself, I am going in skeptical.
But Hannah is a bird with a very special talent. Because the Dallas Contemporary museum did not email me back in time about photos to use, please enjoy this video that shows a little of Hannah’s process, as well as my descriptions.
Hannah creates her art at first with a cardboard box. Havel gives her one and she just destroys it. She pecks parts of it out, tears at it, disconnects its sides. She bends the box into something new. Then, when she is finished, Havel dismantles the box, casts each side in bronze, and reconstructs it. The work is exhibited on the wall as individual boxes, in towers Havel has stacked, and some canvases Havel has made of the original boxes themselves. I have not seen this exhibition in person, but the sculptures are striking even online.
I love Hannah’s art! It makes me want to cry. It feels destructive, as if the negative space in each individual piece could suck up all of the energy in a room. The jagged emptiness of Hannah’s pecking creates sharp ridges that are dangerous, yet inviting. Mounted on the wall her destroyed boxes fill me with despair. They are so beautiful! How lucky we are that apparently African grays can live to be 50 years old?