The Cow is the Moon, is the Moth, is the Man

Introductory essay for “Craig Blietz: Eight Years of Pastoral Dreaming” – details at bottom.

“Pollen” by Craig Blietz, Oil on Panel, 36″x 52″, 2010

The Cow is the Moon, is the Moth, is the Man
by Lauren Levato Coyne, artist and author

“Studying cows, pigs, and chickens can help an actor develop his character. There are a lot of things I learned from animals. One was they couldn’t hiss or boo me. I also became close to nature, and am now able to appreciate the beauty with which this world is endowed.”

–  James Dean, actor

For many centuries those who cared for the sick and injured did not segregate their patients by species. Humans lived close to their livestock and the same practitioner would stitch, set, birth, and diagnose each, resulting in a wide diagnostic capability. That all changed around the dawn of the twentieth century when the relentless march of progress pushed people into cities, replacing the cow and the horse with machination and modernity. In the late 1800s the Morrill Land-Grant Acts deepened the divide by assigning veterinary schools to rural communities and over the course of the following hundred years we radically eliminated generations of shared diagnostic knowledge among physicians and elevated our status as humans to the highest of all orders.

But those of us who still live with creatures know the interspecies connection is strong. The division is a perception more than a reality, as groups such as the One Health Initiative, a professional movement dedicated to equal and inclusive collaborations between physicians and veterinarians, are proving. While One Health provides the facts and analytics, artist Craig Blietz is one of the few working today who puts forth the visual proof of this interconnectedness.

Blietz’s triptych Sleepwalker is a striking example. In the center panel two pairs of dairy cows are in a mimic, one pair walks and the other pair rests in the grass during the gloaming, nature’s shift change as diurnal creatures give way to the nocturnal. Cows go home, moon comes up, moths go out. The Luna moth, the earthbound symbol of our celestial partner, is drawn in an oversized contour that both compliments the fully rendered form of the cows and is an ethereal symbol of the Midwest.  The left panel features spheres the color of night’s silver light and they appear to be bubbles, rising moons, an insect’s egg sacks, and drops of milk all at once. In the right panel the profile of a majestic dairy cow shows the beast in slumber.

Was Blietz perhaps thinking about the Blue Karner butterfly, a species that was at risk of extinction from Wisconsin and the rest of the Midwest, in part from livestock grazing? From this and the rest of his oeuvre it is clear the artist is concerned deeply with our relationships to one another. For example in his newest body of work the foremost narrative in the series is his wife’s memory of living across from the Higgins’ Summit Creamery. Blietz himself has no personal connection to the Creamery yet its impact on his imagination is evident. How magical this family business must have been to the artist’s wife as a young girl, as well as to the several generations of Wisconsinites who consumed the 2,000 pounds of butter produced every week and drank the Creamery’s unique specialty, chocolate buttermilk. The colors of the creamery and of the dairy cow are not lost on the artist as he employs them with luminous, captivating effect. Our emotions and memories are certainly churned.

“Hircus Circus” by Craig Blietz, Acrylic on Linen , 60″ x 118″, 2012

If viewed as its own ecosystem, the cow is the keystone species of the Blietz studio. Nearly two decades ago the cow as subject was partially a formal decision by the artist who moved from Chicago to Door County, Wisconsin and found himself surrounded by a different type of large mammal which possessed what figurative painters desire in models: sculptural form, defined muscle, and the ability to stand relatively still for long periods of time. Today his cattle portraits are awash in the technique and history of the grand masters who have gone before him such as American mid-century realist Andrew Wyeth and seventeenth century Netherlandish painter Paulus Potter. However, for as much poetic insight and stoicism as Blietz’s work provides, he has an equal and engaging humor and grace that even the most triumphant animal portraitist hasn’t quite been able to capture. Other animals appear as partners in the bovine tale. Goats that at various turns recall William Holman Hunt’s painting The Scapegoat but who are later seen in their other moods, such as in Blietz’s painting Hircus Circus , a delightful expression of the particular mania goats can often display.  A curved line bisecting two spheres appears in Hircus Circus to help read the picture, but this motif repeats enough in other work to remind the viewer of the connection. Reminiscent of Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles is Blietz’s diptych Orbit where a young girl holds the same golden sphere that appears behind a horse in the adjacent panel. These repeating motifs certainly weave a particular thread through the decades of Blietz’s narration, but they do more than carry along a story. The glowing orbs of changing sizes and temperatures, the women standing before a cow either in memory of or in reconciliation with each other’s skins, the curving lines, shifts from day to night, flowers that invade the bovine space – all of these repeating subjects become symbols become metaphors for the bottom line: we all stand in the same space, sharing more by way of connection than by being in the field alone.

“Craig Blietz: Eight Years of Pastoral Dreaming” was published in conjunction with the 20 year survey of Blietz’s work held at the Miller Art Museum in the Fall of 2013. It is hardcover, measuring 12″ x 12″, has 192 pages with color and black & white images. Included in the book is an Introduction by Bonnie Hartmann, Director of the Miller Art Museum.  Deborah Rosenthal, Miller Art Museum Curator provides an interview with Blietz. Essays and reviews in the book have been contributed by Lauren Levato Coyne, Shan Bryan-Hanson, Peggy Sue Dunigan, and John Mendelsohn.

For more of Craig’s work visit his website.

You may order the book here.

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