Interview: Adoring Paris: The Absinthe Birds by Tony Fitzpatrick at The Dime Gallery

Autumn Saint. Tony Fitzpatrick.

Artists have found inspiration in the city of Paris for ages. From the Degas painting, The Absinthe Drinker, to the poetic black and whites of 20th century photographer Robert Doisneau and so many more, the city of lights is the backdrop of countless works of great art. Now Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick has brought his own homage to the European city to Chicago. On view now through the end of January at The Dime, Fitzpatrick’s The Absinthe Birds is a veritable aviary that is a message of love to the famous French city.

Within the small gallery space, visitors are greeted by rushes of color and a myriad of bird species–the stars of most of the works in this series. Although Fitzpatrick says he is not religious, the imagery from the Catholicism of his past creeps into some of these works. The figures have a saintly quality not only in the clear adoration of the subject, but in the halo-like orb fixed behind the heads of the figures. In a phone interview, the artist discusses this prevalent iconography. “I’m a really shitty atheist. I can’t scrub the Catholicism off,” he said. “For me, it implies there is something sacred about these beings. I was raised Catholic and the first artwork to make a really huge impression on me was religious art.”

This move to imply the sacred is apparent in the electrified colors of each work on paper, encompassing the viewer immediately upon entering the gallery. Fitzpatrick’s palette is riveting and ever-changing, much like the subjects in his work. An avid lover of birds, this is where adoration mingles and saunters with a saintliness throughout the works.

 “I like that there is this reverence for beings,” Fitzpatrick told us in the interview, “and that reverence is very much a part of the mood and the meaning in The Absinthe Birds.”

The series came out of a three-month stint in Paris as the second season of the Amazon show, Patriot, in which Fitzpatrick stars, was being filmed. “I am the only guy who ever went to Paris and lost 17 pounds,” he said. Constantly wandering the parks and streets of the city, the artist (like so many before him) took great inspiration from it, intoxicated by the scenes before him, the history around him, as well as the numerous species of birds surrounding him. The Luxembourg Gardens was a mainstay of his wanderings and it was a place where birds all of species mingled, making for a magical experience. “I was amazed that I was seeing all these different kinds of birds and a friend of mine told me that a lot of these were escapees from the market where they sold cage birds to rich people. For a century, they’ve been escaping and breeding in the parks.” The birds themselves became tributes for Fitzpatrick to the many artists and thinkers whose presence still permeates the city.

Sauntering through the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, he saw the final resting places of greats such as Jim Morrison, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and others. These figures, along with the history of surrealism so ingrained into the city’s artistic roots, the birds also beckoned artists from the movement. “I took notice of all of the amazing artists in Paris and I realized how I did not know nearly enough about these artists. Surrealist artists like Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim, and Remedios Varo.” He continued, “I realized half of the story of surrealism never really got told, since art history was usually written about people who look like me.”

The Emerald Songbird. Tony Fitzpatrick.

In Absinthe Birds, Fitzpatrick took that inspiration and learning to the drawing board. The birds and other figures in the works are rendered with great reverence, detail, and heightened colors that are almost electric in their feeling. In Autumn Saint (The Saint of the Red Children), the bird is wearing a robe that gives it a quality of being revered. Behind its valiantly colored head lies a green halo, only furthering that reverence. Yellow crosses pepper the robe, along with stars and sun-like orbs. From the robe emerge branches that act as limbs (hands, if you will) as the bird blesses its surroundings. The inscription alluding to this is deeply poetic and lyrical: “The Saint of the Red Children blessing the ground where orphans once walked, with dark leaves, holy oil, and wine-colored prayers.”

Reverence continues in Emerald Songbird (for Josephine Baker). The bright, electrified green of the bird merged with the deep black and saturated gray and white of the bird gallantly takes its proper place in the center of the composition. Its head is turned and the bird gazes at a collage element in the work, a saint who holds up their hand as if in reverence for the bird as well. One can delightfully soak in the details of this piece, like all of Fitzpatrick’s work, for a long time coming from each work with a different meaning and even emotion each time it is viewed. “PARIS” sits in capital letters at the base of Emerald Songbird and deftly shows how the city is the foundation, the root, of all of the beauty above it.

Also in the piece is a phrase in French translated to English as: “She’s in the house, in the fields, in the sky. She sleeps in yellow trees where songs are born.” The inclusion of text in the works add a poetic, even prayer-like moment that adds even more dimension to these highly textured works. Reverence and adoration weave through each work and the series as a whole and it is deeply felt. Visitors to the show will no doubt leave with a fresh appreciation for nature and all of its beings as well as the city of lights.

The Absinthe Birds by Tony Fitzpatrick is on view through January 31 at The Dime Gallery located at 1513 N. Western.

Carrie McGath
Carrie McGath

Carrie McGath is a poet and art critic is who is currently at work on her second collection of poetry, The Luck of Anhedonia. She teaches writing and lives in the Logan Square neighborhood with her sassy tuxedo cat, Sophie. You can follow Carrie on Instagram and check out her website.