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Duke Riley: Flights Of Fancy At USF Contemporary Art Museum

Feb 10, 2017

He's an artist, a pigeon fancier and a tattoo artist. Brooklyn-based Duke Riley has found a muse in the lowly pigeon. It's a bird often derided as a sort of "rat with wings" or something dirty. But Riley says nothing could be further from the truth. 

His first encounter with a pigeon came when he was a child. He found an injured homing pigeon, nursed it back to health, released it and found that it kept returning to him. Later, in his 20's and 30's, he kept pigeons of his own. It's a culture he says is intertwined with Brooklyn, but it's fading as the movement toward rooftop gardens rises in the City. 

A recent public art piece he did with Creative Time and the Brooklyn Navy Yard was a bright reminder of the city's heritage of rooftop lofts and Riley's effort to "bridge the gap between nature and humans." It was called "Fly By Night." Two thousand pigeons were fitted with specially-designed LED lights on their ankles and they soared into the sky over New York's East River.

"I was probably hoping to draw people's attention to the pigeons themselves, and a greater appreciation for their intelligence, and their beauty and the way they've served humanity in the past," Riley said.

The "Flights of Fancy" exhibition at USF Contemporary Art Museum brings together "Fly By Night" and an earlier pigeon-inspired project.

Curator Sarah Howard says, "I think this exhibition and Duke's work, as well as what's exciting and provocative about a lot of contemporary art and the role of artists and cultural institutions in society is the ability for it to shift our perspectives."

Riley's "Trading with the Enemy" project, launched a few years ago, involved training 50 pigeons and building tiny harnesses that would allow them to ferry cigars or cameras from Key West to Cuba and back again. The show displays portraits of the carrier pigeons, named for infamous smugglers and videos of their exploits, such as a bird named "Sloppy Joe Russell." 

Some may think the project was a political statement about Cuba.Riley says it had more to do with freedom. He calls the former U.S. ban on trade and travel with that country un-American. 

"As an American, it seems completely hypocritical and unconstitutional that you could tell an American citizen that they can travel anywhere in the world, except this one place," Riley said.

Curator Sarah Howard says while the USF Contemporary Art Museum has seen its share of unique exhibitions, this may be the first one that brings the "art" to life.

The main gallery at USF CAM plays host to about half-dozen feathered friends, on loan from a local pigeon fancier and tended by specially-trained staff members. On the day I visited, they seemed content in their mint green, mauve and pink loft that once stood in Havana, Cuba -- most of them quietly resting, another preening.

There are massive "sailor valentines" made up of found seashells, like glistening white cowrie shells, mussel shells, oyster shells, olives, and sea stars.  All of the works in the exhibit were created by Duke Riley.

"Duke works in this style of field researcher," Howard said. "The things he would use to care for the pigeons, a diorama type of thing that allows the viewer to see the type of research that goes into these performative interventions."

Riley says he could go "on and on" about the birds' beauty and brilliance, even pointing to one study that said trained pigeons bested humans in spotting cancers on mammograms.

But the esteem in which he holds them may be best rendered by "Cher Ami," which greets visitors as they come into the exhibition space. The earth tone mosaic looks like it was lifted straight out of Roman times. But where you'd expect to see Caesar's laurel-wreathed head, there stands the figure of a noble bird.

Flights of Fancy is on through March 4 at the USF Contemporary Art Museum. And there are two forthcoming events tied to the show: A Sycom Concert: Music For Flights of Fancy, on Feb. 17 at USF Contemporary Art Museum from 7 to 9 p.m. and Art Thursday, Fly By Night with the New York-based public art agency, Creative Time's Jean Cooney on Feb. 23 at 6 p.m.