Sarah McCoubrey’s mixed media works straddle the line between the real and the unreal, as the artist manipulates elements of nature to create a rich fantasy world that sparks viewers’ imaginations and is open to wide interpretation.
McCoubrey’s Works on Paper exhibition continues until Aug. 24 at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York.
McCoubrey, who is a landscape painter and a professor of art at Syracuse University, drew inspiration from hydrofracking sites across the Northeast and the industrial waste beds of Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, where she lives.
But for McCoubrey, this polluted landscape is fertile ground for creative inspiration—a place she calls Eden. The exhibition wall text states McCoubrey “begins the process by ‘planting’ outdoor sculptures comprised of natural elements and human detritus she finds at these sites and then makes digital prints of them, adding constructed imaginary elements by hand.”
The result is more than 20 works on paper, composed of digital images, mixed media and ink drawings, depicting a combination of twisted branches, roots and mounds of earth, slender, damaged trees, industrial debris and strange creatures emerging from the toxic ooze and crawling across stretches of barren land.
I witness an older woman sitting on a bench in the exhibition space, looking up at a series of eight panels. “Is that a potato?” the woman asks her friend, who stands nearby. “Yeah, I think so,” the friend replies.
The panels indeed show potatoes—one large potato per panel—in various states of departure. The tubers are taking off, fleeing the landscape either on foot or flying through the air.
And the images provide ample raw material for viewers to invent narratives:
One potato—Escape Vehicle: Fat Potato, 2012—looks a little like a Goodyear Blimp, perhaps floating above a patchwork of farms and fields somewhere between Akron and Columbus; maybe it’s en route to an Ohio State Buckeye football game.
Escape Vehicle: Potato With Propeller, 2012, shows a potato with wings, a blue propeller and two small trees sticking out of it flying from right to left over what looks like the snow-covered hills of upstate New York.
Another piece in the exhibit, Moving the Buffalo, 2012, recalls the beast from the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, as a group of walking figures, constructed out of organic material like branches, transports an industrial-looking wagon across the ground.
A stocky man in his fifties stands in front of Boats on the Water, 2014, gazing intently at the work. He then turns to me and asks, “What do you see?”
Before I can answer him, he says, “It reminds me of an eyelid closing.”
The foreground of the image is dominated by a curved patch of dark earth with clumps of roots beneath the surface and small trees dotted above. In the background, we can see boats floating on a small body of water, likely a pond.
Map of the Wastebed, 2014, shows a map seen from above with fish and boats surrounding the site. Is this a scaled view of McCoubrey’s Eden? It reminds me of a treasure map and is similar—at least in terms of intent—to the map of the Hundred Acre Wood from the Winnie-the-Pooh series, written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. The map gives us the setting where McCoubrey’s stories play out.
And this is where the exhibition shines. There’s no doubt McCoubrey’s work is serious, as she calls attention to the damage of toxic waste and other threats to the environment. Her images portend a future world where the Earth seems to undergo a rebellion as the planet adjusts to cataclysmic changes.
Yet she delivers her message softly by hooking viewers with her playful touch and characters that could be found either in a Dali painting or jumping off the pages of a Scholastic picture book.
In fact I believe children would enjoy seeing this exhibition. They wouldn’t need to know anything about global warming, pollution and hydrofracking; instead, they could stand in front of McCoubrey’s prints and giggle at some of the shapes and figures while comparing impressions. It would be the art gallery equivalent of lying on your back on the warm grass and staring at cumulus clouds moving across the sky. And I am sure my five-year-old niece Elizabeth would get a kick out of seeing some potatoes zipping through the air.
Sarah McCoubrey: Works on Paper is part of the museum’s 2014 Edge of Art Series. For more information, go to http://everson.org/.