Copyright Brian Kiteley
On Sarah McCoubrey
For the Syracuse University Show Catalogue of McCoubrey's Paintings, 1996
I have known and loved Sarah McCoubrey’s paintings for many years. I am familiar with her work both professionally and personally, the latter in the sense of seeing paintings in living rooms, in cluttered studios, on the way to the kitchen. There is one painting I haven’t seen for many years, which seems a useful place to start my discussion of this show. From my own memory, I recall a couple of chairs scattered helter skelter about a back yard, a dimly lit bedroom window, a dark blue night sky, a street lamp in the distance, silvery leaves distorting the light. The invisible children have been called in from their play, and they’re trying to sleep while this noisy yard still beckons them. The scene is haunted, but there is also an assurance of ownership, the afterglow of a comfortable suburban childhood. This is a painting that has always deeply moved me. I may be misremembering the details. But what matters to me is that I have a foundation like this, akin to a set of childhood memories, upon which these recent paintings rest for me.
Sarah McCoubrey has traveled away from these intimate backyard portraits of family (with the family absent) to a more detached and elemental landscape—flat vistas, quarries, the edges of junkyards or forgotten industrial reservoirs, a quarter of an hour after a small apocalypse. An abandoned piece of furniture or an appliance usually sits center stage, loaded with symbolism and yet stripped of meaning. They are all daylight images, the air heavy with summer humidity but paradoxically clear (except for the shockingly different and beautiful “Spring,” an accurate portrait of that season but really a lament for the staying power of winter). The earth in these paintings has almost always been transformed by human activity, rumpled and wrinkled, overturned and grooved by careless machinery, but humans themselves and any structures humans might occupy are missing.
In one painting, “Plaid Sofa, Summer,” the recurring image of the chair has to compete with this titular sofa, which straddles a small hill. The chair is stuck in clay, foregrounded but relegated to the mud, whorls of puddle under and around it. The white wooden chair faces slightly away from the sofa, as if calling out to it, but chairs and sofas are presumably blind and deaf, so they can’t know exactly where they are in relation to each other. There is no question that humans could ever inhabit this scene. This is a beautiful landscape divested of its romantic beauty. These scenes suggest the kind of fenced off world boys love to play war in, imagine horrors against. They also strike me as still lifes, with the French phrase in mind, nature morte, dead nature, landscapes distilled from nature.
I am tempted to use one of Sarah’s titles for the whole show, “Things by Water.” This painting is uncharacteristically closed in, without the long flat Renaissance perspective. The things, duct piping and exhaust fans, lie arranged among the debris of walls with an almost classical sense of organization. The river and the lush facade of green behind it operate as a theatrical backdrop. In “Green Oven,” the centrality of the oven, even its cartoon-like visage, is less important than the sky, ominously overcast, unusually turbulent for these paintings. The green oven seems about to jump into the lake, its heroic pose mocking the solemnity of the situation.
“Spring” resists my attempts at description. It sticks out in this group, as I said, because of the season. The prevailing colors are gold and brown, the green hesitant, and the sky a muffled mix of washed out colors. This painting has the slimmest narrative line. An outfall pipe may or may not be hiding in the brown grass. This might be another of these familiar blasted ex-construction sites, which would account for the copper of the pond, either chemical and late twentieth century or natural and nineteenth century. The burnt blackened earth around this golden pond reminds me of the rest of the paintings, of these other cheerfully cheerless scenes. But something about “Spring” beautifully violates what I’ve come to expect from Sarah McCoubrey. “Spring” feels the most like a landscape painting of all these paintings. It expends itself on the shapes of the larger contours of hill and fold, rather than on the exquisite subjects at the center.
Along with the occasional, jarring and intriguing cartoon-like images (evident in “The Green Oven” and also “Red Chairs and Carrots,” where the carrots sprawl like huge papier maché constructions in the foreground), “Spring” instructs me how to view the other works, the totality. These anomalies read as interstices of the sustained momentum of the common imagery. They deepen the effect of all the paintings for me. Sarah McCoubrey builds a complexly moral world out of the shards of landscape paintings, still lifes, and dreamscapes.
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