Monday, May 05, 2008

What We Know About Cows, or Sing One Song

Me being a Kentuckian and all, I guess people might expect me to write about the Kentucky Derby which was Saturday, but I think I’ll write about cows instead. My grandfather was a cattle farmer in Mason County, Kentucky, and still stands proudly by his prize cows, preserved forever in an aged black photo album, the kind with black pages, where the black and white cows are fixed in with black photo corners,.

Right now at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, there is an extraordinary congregation of cows, painted by Lois Dodd. One of those cows will be looking straight at you, its face a plane of clear yellow, a simple plane of earth and endurance, the color of butter. It was Dodd’s painting that got me thinking about what it is about cows that entices artists to choose them as subjects. And that led me to the way cows epitomize unhurriedness. When rushed, they have the same awkwardness as swans forced to walk out of water. Cows have the solidity of boulders in a field – and like boulders, they’re thinking something, but you’re not quite sure what.

A quick Google search for artists and cows turns up a disappointing number of references to projects in which people decorate cows and put them on city streets, but also this directory of cow cartoons where you get a glimpse of what cows think, and this review of paintings by Sharon Yates, another artist who gets the essence of cows.

And then there are the references from The Rig Veda, in part a song praising cows, which makes them god-like. “To me the cows seem Bhaga, they seem Indra, they seem a portion of the first-poured Soma . . . . O cows, ye fatten e’en the worn and wasted, and make the unlovely beautiful to look on.”

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