Old MacDonald's farm has fallen through the looking glass, and farming has never been so fun. No, there are no giant clefts in the ground, there have been no earthquakes and Mother Earth has not swallowed up the old Scotsman's livelihood. Rather, Old Mac's farm has been rethought and kindled anew--transformed into a fantastic world of maw-less animals without eyes whose duct-tape pelts glisten and shine in the glow of light brought in by the open gallery door.
Fabricated from a palette of the fake--duct, masking and reflective tape; papier-mâché; plastic; Styrofoam; latex wall paint and Astroturf--Betsy Odom's Barnyard makes for a topsy-turvy play on traditions of the picturesque. Odom makes surreal certain familiar tropes of the picturesque, those impressions of light, nature and landscape given to us by two 17th-century painters, Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, without sacrificing any of the accompanying calm and repose. This installation of "nature," on display at the Barry Whistler Gallery, is not meant to jar or antagonize the roving viewer in any way. Instead, Odom seeks to engage gallery-goers in an array of intellectual teasers concerning the interplay between, in her words, "ideas about nature, innocence, God, evolution, culture and the act of creation." With an assemblage of painted plaster-cast and piñata-like animals and assorted props of the rugged and rural, the room-size installation brings a critical eye to those very traditions of which it is the inheritor. In her convincing and innovative use of manmade materials, Odom propounds a recent intellectual addition to the doctrine of the picturesque, namely the idea that its very conceptualization some 400 years ago marked the end of nature as something free and untouched. In short, the dawn of the picturesque in painting and literature marked the domestication of nature. Once the picturesque had been thought, objectified and subjugated by the word "Picturesque," nature in all of its feral untouched splendor had been fundamentally transformed. It had become a product of mankind.
Odom negotiates this tradition of painting in two distinct fashions--through rectangular, painting-like canvases hung on the wall and in the three dimensions of the gallery space. The ironic and creative play on the picturesque is more straightforward, more directly bound to the tradition of Poussin and Lorrain, in the three landscapes made from tape on canvas that line the wall adjacent to the installation, "Barnyard." In these pieces, the artist has substituted duct and masking tape for paint. In the process of substituting media, the artist maintains certain elements of painting and loses others. Various colors of duct tape give the artist the ability to model form, create recession and depth, and compose three-dimensional space within the two dimensions of canvas in the Renaissance tradition of Brunelleschi and Alberti. In "Cowscape," various shades of green tape create a landscape of verdant glades and heath in the foreground of which stands a slightly mottled brown cow. Working in tape on canvas, the artist loses none of the subtle variegation of color on surface that comes with using paint. Lost, however, from the traditional application of paint are the physical possibilities of gloss, sheen and thick impasto, not to mention years of convention as "high art" that come only with paint. But this is no loss in the truest sense of the word, as the artist has made the shift from painting to tape with the intention of using a medium that is "more meaningful to the current moment." Describing her work in terms of a "bastardized language," Odom believes that the banal materials that she uses in both her "painting" and sculpture, most of which can be purchased at Home Depot, have greater significance in our time.
In the installation "Barnyard" the various animal-scapes that are otherwise bound to the wall burst fully into life in three-dimensional form. There one follows a path through a barnyard setting that the artist designed on a computer. The walls are American-barn red, the floor is grassy and there is a wooden box, a pitchfork and an old wooden bench on which to rest. But that's about as conventional as it gets. Along the vertical red and white walls scurry cute little red and white mice made from plastic and painted with latex wall paint as if shooting out into the space of a depthless white sky. The "grassy" floor is really made from Astroturf, the same material that functions as fur coats for the urethane foam and resin "Astrobunnies." The grassy floor takes on a full-fledged landscape presence, as the artist has designed bumps and hills in the small one-room installation. Atop one hill in the corner stands a playful white goat, perhaps saluting her compatriot goat on the opposite side of the room. There are shiny, sparkling red foxes, black opaque piglets, yellow ducks in a blue pond, an owl secretly roosting in the truss overhead and a flamboyant rooster perched up high whose multicolored plumage hangs down in long tendrils to the floor. There's a plaster and faux-chrome weasel skulking behind a pitchfork, giant orange and yellow "roly polys" made from reflective tape huddled in the corner and, perhaps most perverse of all, white squirrels made from plaster and painted like Bengal tigers in acrylic paint.
If you're beginning to envision a hallucinatory episode of Hee-Haw, then you're on the right track. But please don't mistake the happy, Holly Golightly sensibility of this work for mindless naïveté. Odom might be young--all of 23--but she is neither naïve nor stupid. Using the phrase "Pinocchio complex" to describe her mirthful predisposition, Odom claims that she wants her work to be "good"--to be reflective of "the good things" in the world. Here Odom engages in an old concept, forcing life back into age-old tenets and a seemingly bygone belief system of art, namely the one constituted by an array of absolutes, including Virtue, Truth, Beauty and the Good. Yet her ability to succeed in this sea of absolutes arises from the way she transforms those terms: Odom turns Good into good, thereby transforming absolute into contingent. That is to say, the meaning of her work comes specifically from working with tape and other base materials. While eliciting a large audience indeed, hers is a statement very specifically bound to the low-grade everyday materials she uses to make art. Oddly, "the good" takes on a much-welcomed air of pragmatism as its creation relies on the proximity of a Home Depot. In short, Odom manages to make a potent universal statement from the oddments of the everyday.
Odom's work is at once jolly, thoughtful and gracefully young. She creates life-affirming work with a reworked yet Old World humanist sensibility--a feat quite miraculous in a world otherwise left violently injured by most human intervention.
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