The most important piece of information at the small exhibit in Room G01, Kroon Hall is its title: “Ucross: A Portrait in Place.” The exhibit only makes sense with the knowledge that all the works were inspired by the same place, Ucross Foundation’s cattle ranch in Wyoming. The artworks produced by the seven featured artists initially seems too diverse to cohere, but by keeping an idea of the ranch as setting and source of inspiration, I could see them begin to speak to each other, and a portrait of the place really does emerge.
The works displayed range from watercolors to digital prints to small sculptures, and they concern very different ideas, some of them very personal. Cynthia Brinich-Langlois’ watercolors are a highlight that at first seem to stand apart from the rest of the works. Recording an uprooted leafy spurge every day for a week, her series depicts the decay of that poisonous, invasive plant. As Brinich-Langlois tells us, the plant turned out to be remarkably hardy, so that in order to kill it, she had to dry it out in the sun and eventually burn it. She calls the series a “performance”; the word is apt because it becomes a psychological portrait of the emotions she feels toward the plant, playing out before us. The caveat is that the plant looks pretty and graceful, rather harmless. She ups the tension by painting in a style that recalls the serenity of Chinese painting. It is an intensely personal drama, and somewhat removed from the Ucross setting.
Turning to Bill Gilbert’s work sheds light on how to think about Brinich-Langlois. Gilbert’s prints are the biggest works in the exhibit and show the silhouette of a human filled in by an aerial view of the Ucross landscape in front of a mysterious surface, surrounded by little pictures of plants. He took these pictures around Ucross by making shapes of constellations, and his prints map out a personal cosmos that depicts, according to him, the effort to bridge heaven and earth. His affection for each plant in the small photos is palpable. The prints are ambitious, beautiful, personal and clearly tied to the ranch.
Gilbert’s grand scope and attachment to the ranch illuminate Brinich-Langlois’ watercolor performance. Perhaps the leafy spurge and the artist can be taken as emblems of something else. The identity of the leafy spurge, something natural, pretty and resilient, yet also invasive and poisonous is particularly evocative. Her work is incredibly thoughtful, and I could start to fathom something of the artist’s feelings towards the ranch.
The most masterful move in the exhibit is the scattering of Joseph Mougel’s photographs. His work is a series of close-up ambrotype pictures of different seeds. The pictures are spooky, even though the classroom setting makes the effect hard to see. They look like ghostly X-rays. On this piece the artist writes, “It is fascinating that early humans, some 9000 years ago, could look upon a plant, see the potential of a grain, and begin to take steps towards a partnership that would ultimately tie together both humans’ and plants’ cultural paths.” He was partly inspired by the deep past, yet it is ambiguous where these photos would take place. The documentation of these seeds in such a scientific way seemed to have a certain apocalyptic flavor. There is a continuous line between humans’ discovery of agriculture and our present destruction of the environment, and there is an eerie parallel in the way both events begin with small intentions and lead to extreme consequences. The placement of these photos all around the exhibit reminds the viewer that the beautiful Ucross landscape might not last.
Seeing the portrait of Ucross is an oddly cerebral experience. The exhibit originally showed at the Ucross Foundation ranch, so perhaps visitors would see the art after seeing the landscape which inspired it. At Yale, the physical ranch is gone, but the art continues to refer to that same place. The ranch becomes an imagined place formed by the individual visions of the artists bouncing back at each other. The setting of the exhibit in a classroom is not optimal; it takes a bit of mental work to get there. But I recommend making the trip. It’s quite an interesting place, and it’s right here at Yale.