Digging Deeper: Sarah McCoubrey’s Sentimental Landscapes

Artist Sarah McCoubrey talked to Colgate students and faculty about her new show of paintings and drawings, titled “Fate and Transport,” last Wednesday, February 13. Although McCoubrey mentioned her love of landscape painting multiple times, it is clear that she is after something more complex than beautiful scenery. Her dystopian landscape paintings show us another side of nature, perhaps one that few of us have experienced before.

 In Associate Professor of Art and Art History Lynette Stephenson’s introduction of McCoubrey, she stressed the beauty and visual harmony of the artist’s Syracuse studio. Inside the barn which she employs as her studio, there were many detailed, intricate paintings, some finished and others in progress. On the windowsills, there were potatoes suspended in water with toothpicks protruding out of them. These potatoes make up the subjects of McCoubrey’s “Escape Vehicles,” beautifully detailed images of potatoes in transport. Feelings of serenity and freedom stem from the way in which the “vehicle” perfectly floats over the world below it.

When McCoubrey spoke about her work, one could see how she truly related with what she was painting. Like many successful contemporary artists, she has found a way of producing work that is simultaneously unique yet reminiscent of prior artists. This is likely a result of the fact that McCoubrey does many of her relatively small paintings on panel, a surface used by artists like Jan van Eyck and Hieronymous Bosch.

There is a clear correlation between the blissful paintings and the environment in which McCoubrey produces them. McCoubrey noted that painting outside is good for the brain, as it forces the artist to flatten a world that is clearly three-dimensional and frees the artist from the constraints of a studio.

There is a dark, mystical mood to McCoubrey’s “Wastebed” landscapes, which include intimately painted details that are remarkable to see in person. There is a sizable amount of craftsmanship in these panel paintings, which have been sanded to achieve a perfectly smooth application of paint, something that would not be possible with a canvas.

Perhaps the most notable work in the show is “Large Fate and Transport,” a depressing and melancholy landscape that feels empty. The drawing includes the appropriation of Bosch’s classic painting “Ship of Fools,” except here the boat is empty. The detailed drawings that make up a small percentage of the paper give a disjointed view of the landscape, leaving the viewer searching for more.

If there is one theme that can unify all of the works McCoubrey has in Little Hall’s Clifford Gallery, it is solitude. These are images without people, buildings or other typical markers of society. McCoubrey has purified these landscapes by stripping them of their traditional, practical functions such as farming or housing. Like other landscape painters, she has been selective about what she includes in each painting, not necessarily staying true to her original subjects.

In each work McCoubrey has created, viewers get a sense of escape and relaxation from the pressures of everyday life. Her works have a therapeutic quality and associate with distinct mental states as opposed to simply showing a pretty picture. The show will be on view in the Clifford Gallery until March 31, so be sure to stop by and check out an interesting, new take on a traditional subject of art.