Farming in America became more of a business than a way of life during the twentieth century. As farmers were driven to increase production, they were also driven deeper into debt to buy facilities, machinery, chemicals and high-yield biologicals. Their role in the natural world was overwhelmed by global markets and financial obligations. Meanwhile, agricultural products got incorporated into consumer advertising that typically sells the sizzle and not the steak. Commercial images of beef products haunt the consumer’s mind just as they wandered into the paintings of Albert Oehlen, a German artist who showed recently in Chicago.
It’s the images of Holstein dairy cows that have wandered into the paintings of Wisconsin artist, Craig Blietz. Browsing the internet, you discover that dairy cows are a popular subject for self-taught artists. Blietz, however, is hardly self-taught. Like a trained abstract painter, he takes advantage of the amorphous dark blotches on the Holstein’s white hide to toggle between spatial depth and surface pattern. Like a trained figurative realist, he builds forms that reflect the inner dynamics of muscle and bone. Like a contemporary conceptualist, he works with rural semiotics rather than pastoral vistas of what a tourist might see.
Everything is well-made with an economy of means. Just a few brushstrokes and strong contours define large areas of color. The results are usually not all that exciting. The emphasis is on graphic design and recognizable figuration rather than color, luminosity, or other painterly qualities. Most of these paintings are named after crops grown in Wisconsin: oats, winter wheat, flax, hops. These depictions of cultivars are decorative, and not made any more profound by the artist’s application of their Latin names: avena, linum, lupulus, aestivum. Nor do the images of a browsing cow or two make them any more interesting. Their comfortable ordinariness would best decorate a county courthouse or farmers’ co-op.
There are a few remarkable exceptions. In “Herd,” the painting which shares its title with the entire exhibition, the viewer may well feel intimidated. Even if they are gentle beasts, there are way too many large cows packed tightly together, looming above and moving toward the viewer. In a much smaller piece, “Terra Maize,” we are given what appears to be the facial portrait of a single cow, with all the dignity, sensitivity and precise use of earth tones one might expect in a portrait by Rembrandt.
Though presenting the business-like reality of contemporary farming, these paintings do not address the current crisis in the dairy industry. Milk prices have been low for four years. Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms in 2017, and the industry has trended downward for decades. Between 1992 and 2002, the number of dairy farms in Door County, where the artist lives, declined forty-six percent. It may be that the current business model for dairy farming is not sustainable for either farmers or the environment. It may be that both artists and farmers should be approaching rural life in a very different way.
Craig Blietz’s “Herd” shows through March 2 at Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 North Milwaukee Street, Milwaukee.