BY Richard Flood in Frieze | 11 NOV 01
Featured in
Issue 63

Birds of a feather

Ambush for Flamingos

BY Richard Flood in Frieze | 11 NOV 01

Like everyone, I have thousands of things which move me, which give me pleasure, which inspire me. Very big storms, fog rising over potato fields, Francisco de Goya's Head of a Dog, Samuel Barber and Thomas Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, the Montana Badlands, Silvana Mangano in anything (but particularly Pasolini's Teorema), the coastline of Donegal, American history as told by Francis Parkman Jr.,everything by Flaubert, The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz, The Flagellation of Christ by Giotto, Bob Dylan, Juliette Greco, Kurt Cobain, Michael Clark, Uma Thurman, Malibu, Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, Louise Brooks in Pabst's Lulu, grain silos, freight trains hurtling through rural America, the Pantheon in the pouring rain, Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris, Jonathan Rabin's Badlands: An American Romance, Roderick Hudson by Henry James, Bindo Altoviti by Raphael, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, Elsa Schiaparelli's collaborations with Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol's 'Electric Chairs', Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, Bruce Conner's A Movie, Bernd and Hilla Becher's typologies, Casa Malaparte, Paul Thek's 'Small Paintings', Niagara Falls, Julius Shulman's architectural photographs, Marcel Breuer's swooningly brute campus for the Benedictine monks in Collegeville, Minnesota, the iconic evil of Robert Mitchum's performances in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, my inability to keep my right hand out of holy water fonts, and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

That's just part of it. I could go on; I could prioritize. There are poems and buildings and bridges and mountain passes and exhibitions and bullfights and Bureau of Land Management maps and faces and embraces that never leave me. Writing about them comes from a missionary zeal to communicate their wonder to you. As a professional enthusiast, my need to confirm the worthiness of my enthusiasms is essential to my definition of professionalism.

If I had to pull it all together, to offer a single example of something that activates my curiosity and challenges my intuition, it would be (as of today) George Catlin's tiny painting Ambush for Flamingos (c.1857). I've had a postcard of it on my desk for years and I've sent countless others to friends. It's in the collection of the Carnegie Institute's Museum of Art. The entirety of the horizontal composition is given over to the depiction of hundreds of vividly pink and white, calligraphic flamingos occupying an endless green prairie under a turbulent sky. In the foreground, the birds cluster around a settlement of hatchling nests. The parents are deployed in socialized groupings around their chicks like so many chattering nannies in a park. The nesting ground stretches back for what could be miles until a miraculous arabesque of flamingos swirls up against the sky, interweaves and disappears into a cloud. Compositionally and, for a moment, emotionally, its closest relative is Goya's The Feast of San Isidro (1788), with its glorious, epic conviviality. The two paintings share a sense of renewal and freedom, of being a peaceful one among the harmonious many. Then, in Ambush for Flamingos, the eye invariably strays to the lower left foreground where there is a man almost hidden behind the one shrub visible in the painting; he is holding a gun. In an instant, the perfect beauty of the flamingos' world is about to come to a convulsive end. We are no longer connoisseurs; we are witnesses.

What in Catlin's day was a warning has today become a prophecy fulfilled. I won't go on; I don't know enough about it. It's a question now of me thinking more and feeling less. I do know what Catlin's next painting might have looked like with the introduction of a field of red to the pink and white and green and blue. The wonder of Ambush for Flamingos is how chillingly clear it is that there is no need for a next painting; the traumatizing of the land and its creatures had begun.