December 28, 2009

Contemporary Agriculture

Silage Covered by Plastic and Tires, Newbury, Vermont, 1999, oil on canvas, 45 x 60 inches

Two readers left interesting comments on my post "Black V" regarding my choice of agricultural implements as subject matter. I thought I'd expand a bit on my ideas, touched on in the post "At a Point in Time, Change"; I forget that many of my readers are not familiar with my previous work or what it was about, and how it led to the paintings I've been doing for the past few years.

I found my way to landscape by expanding my view from domestic architecture, which I painted during the beginning years of my career. Then I found that the landscape that interested me was not pristine fields and forests, but the working agricultural landscape. I set up my easel at farms; in speaking with farmers, I began to know more about agricultural issues, and thought more about the history and current dilemmas of ag policies.

The US began as a farming nation, and we still tend to see farmers in a golden light, except for the corporations of Big Ag. Our national farm policies have created an abundance of cheap food, which is a great boon for many, but at what cost to the health of body and land? can we go back to small, sustainable farms? will our policies change to encourage healthy soil and healthy food?

In the painting above, the contrasts of nature and technology, beauty and raw plainness are evident. There's a manure lagoon in the background, which nourishes the soil, yet can pollute horribly if used incorrectly.

Hay Storage, Central Valley, California, 1995, oil on canvas, 44 x 66 inches

In the Central Valley of California there are huge dairy farms, dwarfing even the larger Vermont dairies. They bring in thousands of haybales to feed their cattle, stored in giant pyramid-like structures. I find these white plastic mounds beautiful, although I'm always aware of the factory farms that demand them, with their thousands of cows standing around on piles of manure in paddocks.

Tractor and Ag-Bags, Groton, Vermont, 1994, oil on canvas, 30 x 90 inches

Irrigation Pipes, Barnet, Vermont, 2002, oil on canvas, 50 x 84 inches

In these landscapes of Vermont, the working tools of the farmer are contrasted with the grand views behind them, views which are very Vermont Life. Real life isn't as simple as a lovely view; it is full of contradictions, compromises, and bad outcomes. It is also full of beauty, found in the oddest places.

Draped Tires, 2003, egg tempera on panel, 40 x 30 inches

Over time, I found myself more interested in the things of farming, rather than its landscape; I wanted a sense of touch in the work, a frisson of realness. In Draped Tires, we feel the plastic tarp and the texture of silage beneath it. This is a painting of oppositions: the plastic, which will become a landfill problem, is preserving food for cows, who will feed us. It's gorgeous in its light, but also looks like a funereal covering.

The paintings I've been doing for the past three years, in their move closer to abstraction, have left behind the overt content of my earlier work, while continuing to have a similar meaning; the implements that serve as models for color, design, and form, also carry a complicated history of land use and abuse, of abundance and hard, often thankless, but necessary work.


  1. Thanks for posting this all together. For those new to your work what a thrill to see this all unfold at once. For your older fans, a treat to revisit the many layers.

  2. Best to be silent and thought a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt ... (possibly not exactly what SC wrote), but you get the idea. Thank you for this glimpse of the artist's genius.

  3. How fascinating Altoon.... thank you so much for posting this!
    Its is indeed a great thing to be able to appreciate your shifts in focus and what has gone before and how the impulses changed through time and place.
    I would love to visit your studio and have the whole story of your work revealed through time --from the earliest things from childhood to now. What a treat that would be!
    Love your other last 2 posts as well!

  4. I'm glad you all enjoyed this post of earlier work. If I ever get around to having slides made digital, I'll do a more comprehensive retrospective.

  5. Every time I visit, you give me so much to think about that I find myself unable to make any kind of intelligent comments. I look and leave ... I'm overwhelmed with the trajectory of the paintings and the idea of making a visual statement about the conversations that so many of us are having about agriculture today. But your paintings allow for that complexity and the beauty that exists even on giant farms in a a way that few books, articles or conversations do.

  6. Thank you so much, Ms. Wis.; it's great to know that my work communicates my intention.