Jim Toia, Wood Pecked Birch, 2008

Jim Toia, Wood Pecked Birch, 2008, found object: birch bark pecked by yellow-bellied sapsucker(s); 11.5 x 11.75 x 1.5 in., framed

For Piet Project, Jim Toia recruited red-bellied woodpeckers from the woodlands of New Jersey to make a personal point about twentieth-century Abstract art and its capital-letter status. Painted in the style of Jasper Johns, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian, feeders filled with suet—irresistible to a woodpecker—were installed, and red-bellies quickly came, seeking food with their barbed and sticky tongues. Steadily hammering away at Johns’s esoteric targets, Malevich’s austere squares, and Mondrian’s geometric rectangles, the woodpeckers literally poked holes in the supremacy of “pure forms,” and a half-century’s notion of purity as that which is removed from nature. The work also rebukes the critics and gatekeepers who built Abstract art into a monolith by limiting the “diet” of collectors.

To reach sap, the yellow-bellied sapsucker drills neat rows of quarter-inch holes in apple, crabapple, sugar maple, mountain ash, birch, and pine trees. The sap also attracts ants, beetles, and wasps that the sapsucker laps up with a brush-tipped tongue. Knowing to drill deep holes to reach the rising sap of spring, and shallow holes in summer when sap flows down from the leaves, Yellow-bellies are subtle artists.

Part of Passing Bittersweet, a 2020 exhibition at the Williams Center Gallery. Find more of Jim Toia’s work on his website.