Bovine inspiration: Bass paints the pasture

Nancy Bass, "Color Field Cows."
Nancy Bass, "Color Field Cows."
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I remember the first time I encountered Nancy Bass’s love of the herd. She was a new McGuffey Art Center member, and her striking pastoral images hung at one end of the upstairs hall gallery, directly across from fellow new member Steve Wolf’s large (and humorous!) homoerotic paintings, which McGuffey deemed so provocative that it posted the equivalent of an NC17 rating outside the show.

Wolf’s was a tough act to compete with, but Bass’s almost fluorescent palette–neon orange skies and electric blue shadows–combined with her skill at conveying the very cow-ness of cows enabled her to hold her own. Although she’s toned down her palette since then, Bass remains artistically enrapt with the farm, as evidenced by her exhibition, “Out to Pasture,” on view at Angelo.

For the current show, Bass has opted for a more naturalistic approach to color and downsized the scale of her oil-on-panel paintings. She also experiments with grouping compositions in various ways to create new relationships between the animals and the viewer. For instance, the triptych, “Sublime Landscape,” places two small portraits of sheep on either side of a vertical panel depicting a farm at sunset. The animals’ white heads provide interesting punctuation for the color-saturated sky.

Bass also plays with internal composition. The narrow horizontal panel, “Three Lambs–Spring,” presents the heads of three sunlit sheep in the extreme foreground, while a meadow stretches out beyond them toward distant mountains. Bass’s newest work foregoes natural backgrounds altogether, replacing them with abstract color fields of stripes of varying widths. In “Color Field Cows #2,” her two bovine subjects stand on the far left and right of the painting, leaving the center occupied by vertical stripes. The composition is surprising yet harmonious.

A key to Bass’s successful experiments is her mastery of color, whether using daubed strokes of blue, pink, green, purple, and taupe to offer an impressionistic take on her farm animals’ fur or painting narrow lines of intense pigment to create highlights that imbue her work with an unusual luminosity.

Skill with her palette and compositional experimentation aside, Bass’s greatest charm is her soulful characterization of farm animals. The artist has clearly spent long hours studying her beastly subjects, observing not only the details of their anatomy but also their movement and relationships with each other.

How now brown cow? Bass has any number of colorful ways to answer to that question.

Nancy Bass’s exhibition, “Out to Pasture,” is on view through the end of August at Angelo, 220 E. Main St. 971-9256