Sarah McCoubrey: Earthbound, Paintings

October 7 - 28

A View on a High Road
Figure 1
Meindert Hobbema, A View on a High Road, 1665.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Image is in the public domain.

Lake with Dead Trees
Figure 2
Thomas Cole, Lake with Dead Trees, 1825.
Oberlin College Art Museum. Image is in the public domain.


Figure 3
Sarah McCoubrey, Mitigation, 2009. 
Courtesy of the artist.


Figure 4
Sarah McCoubrey, Available, 2000.
Courtesy of the artist.

Looking at seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, viewers know where they are.  Painters took care to depict their scenes of wind-swept dunes or quiet country fields almost always with a road or a path – maybe rutted, maybe smooth – unfolding in front the eye (Figure 1). To average Dutch viewers, these paintings depicted scenes as familiar as the back of their hands and the roads marked an easy path through the image. By contrast, many nineteenth-century American landscape painters, responding to the awesome natural wealth and size of our continent-wide territory, depicted engulfing vistas that startle the viewer with their wild beauty, rarely offering a passage into it (Figure 2).

Sarah McCoubrey’s paintings manage to combine these two sensations: of the familiarity of the everyday and the bewildering strangeness of landscapes where we are not at home.

In Mitigation (Figure 3) for instance, we stand at the brink of a marsh (the one behind the shopping plaza?). Our gaze is first tempted into the depths by a path of silvery water, pulling us into a lustrous wintry landscape. If we look at the foreground, however, the dirt road that starts to leads us into the painting ends abruptly in a puddle. To the right, a flimsy black nylon barrier tacked to stakes bulges towards us, the water behind it a rancid green.  Mitigation ditches collect polluted water, we remember. The sense of delight in the scene’s stark beauty sours and the viewer is left with an uneasy sensation of attraction and repulsion.

In Available (Figure 4), the viewer gazes across at a hill from the other side of a shallow gully. Behind this hill, we see another, higher ridge, bluish in the autumn light.  The distance implied by the atmospheric perspective creates the sense of a vista, but one for which we are only afforded a glimpse. Virtually monopolizing the composition, the closer hill is fringed with a few scraggly trees. Rectangular signs stand on woozy stakes in front of the trees; one of them reads “Available,” suggesting a quiet desperation – a willingness to cut a deal. Despite this verbal invitation, a chain link fence runs the width of the painting, holding us off. This barrier is continued by a telephone pole and its web of wires, cutting through the spacious sky.

Critics frequently link McCoubrey’s works to American landscape painters like Thomas Cole for her technique as well as her subject. Yet while the subject of these earlier painters was the unspoiled splendor and untapped potential of the American continent of the nineteenth century, McCoubrey’s panels explore these landscapes as thoroughly used by human beings, bearing the scars of industry and habitation. Her vision is not so much post-apocalyptic, however, as post-Edenic – fruit no longer falls in our mouths – this is the land from which we must form our lives. Through the contradictions of her paintings we are reminded of our own ultimate dependence on the land that we inhabit: we are earthbound.

This exhibition is curated by Professor Natasha Seaman of the Rhode Island College art faculty.

Reception: October 7, 5:008:00 p.m.

Page last updated: Monday, September 13, 2010