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The Simple Life

MICA Stalwart Sharon Yates Casts an Unromantic Eye on the Farm

COW CATCHER: Like the best of Sharon Yates' pastoral paintings, "Elwell's Farm" is nearly inscrutable.

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 2/2/2005

Sharon Yates: Paintings and Drawings

At MICA’s Pinkard Gallery through Feb. 13

In what feels like a small victory for healthy cynicism, painter Sharon Yates declares in the notes to her new show—90 percent of which consists of pictures of cows—that, while she’s keenly aware of the rapid and inexorable decline of the pristine countryside she paints, “I am not driven by nostalgia.” Count that to her credit. She says this at a time, after all, when landscape art has become the purview of either European photographers with too much on their minds or Sunday painters with not enough, and so it’s refreshing that Yates has taken a view of rural life that might be described as documentary: serene but not sentimental, and plain to the point of guilelessness. These are cows, in other words, so if you want to get mawkish about them do it on your own time.

Yates has been on the painting faculty at Maryland Institute College of Art since 1968, and there is certainly the sense that the artist has found her focus. Of the 39 agricultural landscapes on view in Sharon Yates: Paintings and Drawings at the Pinkard Gallery, 34 are of cows—all done on the same small scale and with the same closely cropped composition, as if they were a series of bovine portraits. But these are not Monet’s haystacks or variations on a theme. Yates has been painting plein air for most of her career, with her time split between Baltimore and Maine, and it is in Down East’s cattle and dairy farms that she has found her particular entry into the American landscape. Cows, at least the way Yates paints them, have no narrative. They are null sums, utterly blank in face and posture and circumstance, which allows her to take a view of nature that is neither romantic nor regretful, almost Zen-like in its emptiness. If an extinction of intellect is what you’re after, after all, the deadpan gaze of a heifer is a good place to start.

The paintings, mostly oils, are unassumingly sized and given plain, provincial names—“Totton Farm,” “Johnson’s,” “Gray Farm”—but they are noteworthy from the beginning for their lack of quaintness. Almost all of Yates’ barnyard models are depicted lying down, inert, as if awaiting some fate, but their lack of awareness of what that fate might be is visible, and total. In “James Farm,” a cow sprawls in a meadow and appears nearly to grin, the corners of its dumb mouth twisted up in some sort of satisfaction, its eyes shut benightedly, even though another animal stands over its head, braying. In “The Hereford,” a prize-worthy specimen lounges seigniorally, its eyes half-closed into triangles of slate blue, three of its compatriots nodding absently over the range in the background. And “Big Jersey” appears almost to pose, except that even with its broad, brindled face upturned toward the viewer it can’t be bothered to open its eyes. Surely, if ignorance is bliss, this is paradise.

Indeed, the sense of numbness comes to feel pervasive. Even with her moderate, not-too-painterly strokes and narrowcast palette of colors, Yates herself seems wary not to draw attention to such matters of style or technique and to keep the scene, in a sense, empty. And, either because or in spite of this, there are moments in Paintings and Drawings—though perhaps not enough of them—that are satisfying in their enticement to you to fill the void for yourself. Best among them is “Elwell’s Barn,” a large-scale watercolor that presents a lavishly detailed yet nearly inscrutable scene. Rendered in so many shades of russet, ochre, and dun that you nearly run out of ways to think “brown,” a cow seems to struggle to stand on a dusty barn floor, its legs splayed awkwardly, the hooves of another animal just next to it appearing in the left corner, powerless to help. The pained creature’s expression is, like the others, unaffected, brutally unself-aware. And what to make of that crosshatching and smear of black at the cow’s hind end? Is it shit? Afterbirth? Prolapsia? No answers are offered, least of all in the text in the margin, where the artist has written only, like a screenwriter adding background color, “Autumn rain.”

Yates shows in Paintings and Drawings that she has a surfeit of both expertise and ideas to take her longstanding interest in the natural world to a new level, and it’d be interesting to see her do it. But, in the meantime, she has made the signal accomplishment of stripping landscapes of their sentiment or, as she calls it, “nostalgia,” and that’s not easy. The only problem is, when you strip your scenes down too far, there’s plenty of room for viewers to put some of their own sentimentality right back in. On the evening of the show’s opening, one elderly gallery-goer spent the better part of five minutes scrutinizing “Kim No. 2,”in which a Holstein languishes in front of a red barn. At the end of her analysis, she nodded to herself, called her companion over, grabbed her by the elbow, and crooked a finger at the cow. “That cow,” she said, “that cow seems so at peace.”

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