CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Feather in her cap: Burke's birds take flight

From excellent to stellar. From lush to vibrant. The needle on the gauge for assessing Cynthia Burke's oil paintings really doesn't travel very far. For years Burke has turned out gorgeous image after gorgeous image of wildlife, often bedecking her realistic animals in finery and arranging them in poses that recall 17th century European portraiture.

Burke's colors are always rich. Her observation of detail is ever sharp. Her sense of humor is predictably wry. Her presentation is consistently beautiful. In fact, the only true variable from painting to painting and show to show is how taken Burke is with the project at hand. Happily, in the case of "Conference of the Birds," her current exhibition at Angelo, she is enrapt.

Inspired by Farid ud-Din Attar's 12th century Persian poem about a group of birds– led by the hoopoe– who set off in search of a wondrous mythical bird (an allegory for the human quest for enlightenment), the six large works in the show correspond to extracts from the poem. The five smaller bird-in-hat portraits spring from Burke's fascination with the headgear she discovered while researching Persian painting.

Throughout the show, Burke has incorporated some of her signature elements, such as antiqued gold-stenciled frames and subtly patterned backgrounds, while introducing new unifying details taken from Islamic art and architecture, like arches and checkerboard patterns. In the larger images, each representing a particular bird's spiritual lesson, she includes mystical symbols— a key floating on organza above two pigeons tethered together by a locked strand of pearls or a single red clover floating above an owl clutching a nest of beads. 

Worth special mention is Burke's luminous depiction of a hooded falcon sitting blindly on a pearl-entwined perch, oblivious to the mirror-image hoopoes fluttering overhead, a small egg suspended above their nearly touching beaks. Everything works— from the contrast of the hoopoes' butterfly-like wings with the orderly feathers on the falcon's chest to the orange background swirling beyond the olive-green patterned arch.

Another hallmark of Burke's painting is the wink-and-nudge she often gives observant viewers. Of the four ducks Burke lines up in pompous blue hats, the leftmost turns his eye to engage the viewer directly, a device reminiscent of Old Masters' compositions. In her smaller works, Burke cleverly ornaments her frames with crushed bottle caps, even adding a found zipper pull to her fabulous portrait of an ornately helmeted ostrich.

When she's bird-brained, Burke takes wing and soars!

Cynthia Burke's exhibition, "Conference of the Birds," is on view at Angelo through June 30. 220 E. Main St. 971-9256.