Artist Duke Riley Created 1,000 Painstaking Portraits of Everyone’s Least Favorite Bird

At Chelsea's Magnan Metz, the artist expands on his hit Creative Time project, "Fly by Night."

Duke Riley with his pigeons. Courtesy Creative Time.
Duke Riley with his pigeons. Courtesy Creative Time.

It seems safe to say that few people share Duke Riley’s affinity for pigeons. In his latest gallery show, at Magnan Metz in Chelsea, the artist has lovingly crafted individual embroidered portraits of no fewer than 1,000 of them. Each is identified by its name, breed, and the tagline of the loft where it was bred.

The exhibition is Riley’s follow up to his 2016 Creative Time project, Fly by Night, in which he transformed a flock of 2,000 birds into a nightly light show. The birds took flight from the Baylander, a Vietnam-era decommissioned US Navy ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard at dusk with LED lights strapped to their ankles. (The current show’s title, “Now Those Days Are Gone,” suggests nostalgia for the completed project.)

Duke Riley, Fly by Night, 2016. Photo Tod Seelie, courtesy Creative Time.

Duke Riley, Fly by Night, (2016). Courtesy Creative Time/photographer Tod Seelie.

“There are hundreds of different breeds and types of pigeons,” Riley told artnet News during a preview of the show. He drew basic profiles for the different body types, and then filled in the birds’ coloring on the computer based on photographs he had taken of each and every one.

He used a computerized embroidery machine to produce the basic portraits and then added additional details by hand. “You can only get so specific with the embroidery,” said Riley, who can still recall the personalities of individual members of his flock, such as the aptly named Phantom of the Coopra. “That bird would sort of hide in weird parts of the coop and we couldn’t find him!”

Some specimens had names based on their breed—there’s an ice pigeon named the Abominable and an Iranian High Flyer called Freddie Mercury, because of the rock star’s Persian ancestry—while other birds were named after the humans involved in the Creative Time piece. “Anyone who volunteered and physically helped out on the boat had a bird named after them,” said Riley. (We spotted Creative Time’s former director Anne Pasternak proudly showing off her namesake, Annie P. Green Beans.)

Duke Riley's "Now Those Days Are Gone," installation shot at Magnan Metz gallery, showing the 1,000 individual, hand-painted and embroidered portraits of pigeons from the Fly by Night fleet. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley’s “Now Those Days Are Gone,” installation shot at Magnan Metz gallery, showing the 1,000 individual, hand-painted and embroidered portraits of pigeons from the Fly by Night fleet. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Today, the artist still owns some 200 of those birds, which he keeps in the Navy Yard on a different ship. “About 600 of them went to my friend Gil, who lost all his birds in a fire, and the rest of them were divided among four other pigeon fanciers in the city who had helped out with Fly by Night,” he said.

The Baylander, meanwhile, is up at the West Harlem Piers, at West 130th Street, where there is talk of turning it into a restaurant. The Fly by Night pigeons appear to miss it. “A guy who works there told me that sometimes the birds recognize the boat, and they circle around and land on it,” Riley insisted.

Duke Riley, one of the 1,000 individual, hand-painted and embroidered portraits of pigeons from the Fly by Night fleet. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, one of the 1,000 individual, hand-painted and embroidered portraits of pigeons from the Fly by Night fleet. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

He’s kept busy over the past year, creating paintings, drawings, and a large installation based on Fly by Night. The sprawling show includes large-format time lapse photographs capturing the movement of the birds in flight, a large cyanotype of the Baylander, and a gorgeously kitschy mosaic made from all manner of seashells.

Duke Riley, Now Those Days Are Gone (2017). Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, Now Those Days Are Gone (2017). Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

The inevitable byproducts of housing a massive flock of birds, eggs also made it into show in the form of pigeon egg tempera paint, used in four large-scale, Audubon-esque paintings of a single pigeon on roofing tar paper. Riley had no choice but to get creative with his materials, he said: “We had 2,000 pigeons, so we had a lot of eggs!”

See more photos of the exhibition below.

Duke Riley, The Four Pillars of Autocracy as Seen from a Brooklyn Rooftop (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley, The Four Pillars of Autocracy as Seen from a Brooklyn Rooftop (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley's "Now Those Days Are Gone," installation shot at Magnan Metz gallery. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley’s “Now Those Days Are Gone,” installation shot at Magnan Metz gallery. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, <em>The Nature of Abhorrence vs the Abhorrence of Nature,</em> (2017). Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, The Nature of Abhorrence vs the Abhorrence of Nature (2017). Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, It's Coming Through A Hole In the Air (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley, It’s Coming Through A Hole In the Air (2017), detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley's "Now Those Days Are Gone," installation shot at Magnan Metz gallery. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley’s “Now Those Days Are Gone,” installation shot at Magnan Metz gallery. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, Now Those Days Are Gone (2017), detail. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, Now Those Days Are Gone (2017), detail. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, Tactical Mobile Nocturnal Homing Pigeon Deployment Vehicle of the Fly By Night Naval Squadron (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley, Tactical Mobile Nocturnal Homing Pigeon Deployment Vehicle of the Fly By Night Naval Squadron (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley, Cobb Dock & The Red Hook Lady Fliers (2017), detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley, Cobb Dock & The Red Hook Lady Fliers (2017), detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley, A Semi-Accurate Depiction of The Baylander 514-IX and Her Aircraft While Stationed at Wallabout Bay (2017). Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, A Semi-Accurate Depiction of The Baylander 514-IX and Her Aircraft While Stationed at Wallabout Bay (2017). Courtesy of Magnan Metz.

Duke Riley, Cobb Dock & The Red Hook Lady Fliers (2017), detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Duke Riley, Cobb Dock & The Red Hook Lady Fliers (2017), detail. Courtesy of the artist.

“Duke Riley: Now Those Days Are Gone” is on view at Magnan Metz Gallery, 521 and 524 West 26th Street, New York, September 27–October 21, 2017.


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