EXHIBIT: "Rural Labors," paintings by Micki Colbeck. Vermont Supreme Court Building, Montpelier. Through March 25.
ARTWORK:"The Farrier" by Micki Colbeck
"Here I am, thanks to the people of Paris, up to my neck in politics," Gustav Courbet wrote in 1871. The artist was involved in an anti-Bonapartist revolution called the Paris Commune, and his socialist politics and realist aesthetics ensured that workers were a common theme in his paintings. Courbet was also a leader of the Barbizon school of painting, an anti-romantic movement that sought to portray nature and society, not as idealized by intellectual salons, but as they really were. This line of thinking echoes throughout "Rural Labors," Micki Colbeck's exhibition of 34 paintings at the Vermont Supreme Court Building in Montpelier.
Colbeck is from Strafford, Vermont, rather than Paris, and her view of the rural world seems apolitical. Nevertheless, as in Courbet's 1850 painting "The Stone Breakers," Colbeck's workers in this exhibit are muscular and virtually faceless. And if she's not particularly socialist, Colbeck is at least influenced by the Barbizon painters' use of local color.
A farrier's main job is shoeing horses, though the craft has other aspects as well. In Colbeck's "The Farrier," the equine podiatrist is searching around in his toolbox as he holds the left rear leg of a horse. Two chickens wander nearby. "Spring Shearing," with its similar composition, scale and pose, makes a nice a companion piece. The shearer assumes the same hunched position as the farrier; the sheep waiting to be shorn is a mass of fluff.
One significant difference between Colbeck and Courbet is that peasants comprised the bulk of the French rural population in the 19th century, while in Colbeck's time such laborers represent a vanishing class of family farmers. Her paintings may thus represent to some viewers an altogether different "politics."
Figurative paintings are actually in the minority of Colbeck's works here, unless you consider cows to be figures. "Felicity Looks Away" is the portrait of a bony Jersey overlooking a pasture. It has a nice composition, with the cow somewhat twisted in space; her back legs are deeper in the picture plane than the front ones.
"Jersey Calves" features two youngsters in a stall, and Colbeck has left a blue ribbon on the frame -- the painting won a first prize at the Tunbridge World's Fair in 2004. Showing the work with ribbon attached turns it into a uniquely Vermont sort of conceptual-art statement, saying as much about the zeitgeist of the artist's culture as it does about the calves.
Colbeck's landscapes in the exhibition are mostly autumnal scenes. Conse-quently, orange, raw sienna and ochre dominate her palette. "River Windings" is a small oil with laudable white impastos in its river. "Ompompanoosic in Fall," a similar composition showing the river nestled between hills, is less exciting. The paint quality seems relatively uninspired. Applying a final varnish to the scenes would enliven their surfaces dramatically.
"In the Pines" is a larger landscape emphasizing the verticality of the forest and, varnish or not, it's one of the most memorable pieces in the show. That's because the scale is more impressive, and the aerial perspective of the trees moving to a light vanishing point is more pronounced than in the smaller works. Also, Colbeck's brushwork is as energetic on "In the Pines" as it is on the cows and human figures.
Courbet wasn't really that much of a revolutionary. After the collapse of the Commune, he was arrested and fined for his role in wrecking the Vendôme Column, a Napoleonic monument that has since been restored. Officialdom convicted him of being a vandal rather than an outspoken patriot. Colbeck's laborers, on the other hand, are radical enough to be "hung" by the court.