Terry Graff’s sci-fi, fantasy imagery about politics, pollution and plague cries and cavorts like seagulls chasing a fishing boat in over 375 artworks in Avian Cyborgs: The Art of Terry Graff. Yet, in manifesting deep-seated fears around threats to human and natural life, he provides a cathartic experience for the viewer. The artwork is full of dark humour and horror; it is materially and intellectually engaging, colourful, clear and cohesive.
The multi-media artist— also a writer, educator, curator and former director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery— exhibits two streams of his prolific art production: the Warbirds, of which he has over 1,000 in his studio, barn and garage just outside Fredericton, N.B., and his newest series, The Pandemic Horror Series.
The travelling show of collage paintings and assemblage sculptures opened at Cape Breton University (CBU) Art Gallery in the spring and is at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, Sept. 14 to Dec. 17; the Woodstock Art Gallery, Woodstock, ON, Feb. 17 to June 17, 2024; and the UNB Art Centre, Fredericton, Sept. 13 to Oct. 25, 2024. Greg Davies, curator of the CBU Art Gallery and one of six essayists in the 200-page catalogue (Xeno-Optic Research Lab and Press), was amazed when he opened the crates. “The sheer volume plays into the sense of media saturation. You are inundated. It’s a sensory aspect of the show that almost mimics what we get in the media.” Graff’s avian cyborgs are birds of all types, from comical ducks to savage eagles, connected to mechanical technology from tiny gears to motors to missiles.
A former factory worker and self-proclaimed dumpster diver, Graff uses birds and recycled materials to talk about the human destruction of nature— including birds—and to comment on the ambiguous character of technology and war, its beautiful machines, its irrational savagery.
In The Pandemic Horror Series, birds of many types, alone or fused with the human body, are victims of plague or threatening creatures with giant needles in a now-familiar visual scenario of ventilators, blood-spattered hospital rooms, masks, swabs, oxygen masks and even former President Trump himself— in vampire teeth and a MAGA cap. “I have a natural impulse to make sense out of chaos,” says Graff. “I do a lot of research and reading and following the news. It goes into your system, but it is so complex and confusing. Having images emerge from what you are being bombarded with is a creative process. In assemblage you have all these disparate pieces but, when you put them together, meaning emerges.”
Graff grew up in Galt (now Cambridge), Ont., next to a forest— now a parking lot. “It was teeming with bugs and birds, and it was so noisy. It’s dead quiet now.” He collected bird skulls, feathers and insects that he pinned to boards. He put a real tree in his bedroom with bird models perched on the branches. His mother cleaned out his room when all the organic material started to smell. He also saw terrible things happen to birds. “In the 1960s, when I was kid and my father had a convertible, we were driving in downtown Galt and all the birds started falling from the skies and we heard gunshots. They thought the bird population was taking over. I remember one kid putting firecrackers in baby birds’ mouths. I couldn’t bear it.”
As a kid he also loved monsters and Halloween, Boris Karloff comics and Friday ’Fright Night‘ horror movies. “I enjoy horror and whimsy so both aspects are working at the same time. I love ‘gallows’ humour.” When he read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school, “I realized you could use animals to talk about the human condition.” He started with duck decoys— winning The Woodstock Art Gallery’s juror’s choice award for the rough-hewn wheeled decoy Ornithotronix (1979)— fascinated that an artificial object, if it looked real enough, could fool ducks in the wild. “Picasso said art is a lie but if it is convincing it can reveal a truth.”
While he loves nature he won’t depict it as pastoral beauty,
“I have to attach the baggage of human culture to the bird to be more realistic to what we’re enduring, what they’re enduring. Because it’s so out of order now despite all the warnings years ago.”
He started the Warbird series, of predator birds with combat weapons, in 2015 after noticing how fighter jets like the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Eagles are often named for birds. These carnivalesque and fierce pictures are full of bright colour, military symbols and numbers that reference annual bird counts and military ID tags. The birds are antagonists marching towards the viewer or victims of enemy fire plummeting in flames towards the earth. “War embodies at once both the basest, most barbaric aspects of human nature and our most vaunted and valued civilized virtues personified by heroic soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the greater good,” says Graff.
It was an easy step from Warbirds to Covid-19 imagery as Graff observed the war on the disease and the virus of misinformation. When he first heard of Covid-19, “I misheard it as Corvid 19.”
“I decided to make a Corvid 19— a crow with a face mask— because of the avian bird flu as well. From there I followed like everybody else— the horror in people’s lives and what was going on in the hospitals and seniors’ homes and people were dying. I saw it as a horror story. I re-read The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe.”
The horror and humour in this series is amazing; the reds and acid greens gripping. Graff links the speckled sphere of the coronavirus to an exposed human brain and spiked naval mines. He paints medical ’soldiers‘ in gas masks and populates these small paintings with crows, often seen as harbingers of death. A crow wraps its wings around a human skeleton in both an embrace and a death grip. Exhibited in a grid these often ghoulish, politically satirical images read like a movie or a comic book. They recall, as Davies says, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, David Cronenburg’s body horror films and Hitchcock’s 1963 The Birds, a tale Graff prefers in Daphne du Maurier’s original short story.
Graff started making hybrids long before people became ’attached’ to their cell phones, their bodies full of life-improving machined parts and their minds now grappling with the fear of extinction through artificial intelligence. “All of us are cyborgs now,” says Graff, an optimist. “We rely on technology so much; it’s an extension of who we are. Even wearing glasses makes you a cyborg.”
Human beings have “the ingenuity and inventiveness” to use technology to tackle serious problems and create a more utopian world, says Graff, “but the question is, will we?”