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Currents: a powerful stance on the figure

This article first appeared in the 2009/10 issue of Provincetown Arts magazine and is published here courtesy of its editor. Its subject, artist Bert Yarborough, is an associate professor of Fine and Performing Arts at Colby-Sawyer College.

“Enchantment and Discontent: Bert Yarborough's Singular Aesthetic”

By Reva Blau

On first entry, the visitor to Bert Yarborough's winter exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (March 13–May 3, 2009) could not help but turn to the left and look first at WMD, 2006, a showstopper depicting a masked head in oil and acrylic that takes up the entire wall.

The left side of the huge head reveals the delicate hatch-marks, fine graphic lines, and thin washes of paint of Yarborough's mark-making repertoire. On the right, broad horizontal strokes of paint render a carved mask, isolating the human from himself and from the viewer. The viewer's most innate and human sense — the ability to read another's face is made questionable by this half face. Perhaps it is a ceremonial fire that appears in the contracted pupils in large white eyes the shape of perfect teardrops. Below, an angrier fire drips from the nose made of the chiseled marks resembling wood.

By juxtaposing the flaming spirit within and the negation of identifying marks in a single painting, Yarborough makes it clear that for him artistic experimentation is no frivolous activity but awakens the very basic hungers that art activates and its dislocation of the self in the universe. It is almost impossible to look away once having spent some time in front of Yarborough's paintings because of these two forces — familiarizing and defamiliarizing — at work.

In Birdman, 2008, Yarborough replaces the human body with a bird's, as if through painting he had accessed the animal within or, alternatively, turned the clock back to aviary time when we all bore flight but could not walk forward into small spaces. He imparts both an animalism and psychology to the form, showing the human in evident states of anxiety or arousal, abjection or dynamism, and even contemporaneity and prehistory — and often offering both polarities simultaneously.

Having served two Fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center (1977–1979), Yarborough spent years alone in the woods, bogs and dunes of Provincelands creating site-specific sculpture. The materials he used were native and could be left to the elements. Very little trace of human involvement could be evidenced in the bundles and weaves he created with sticks, reeds, and dead pine. There were nests, shelters and webs that came out of his study of architecture and copious drawing of natural forms. For "Bog Web," a work from that period for which he won an NEA grant, he interlaced branches and the interlacing went all the way around a cranberry bog.

Yarborough studied architecture and then received an MFA in Photography at the University of Iowa. His architectural studies involved rigorous draftsmanship. “It was work in Bauhaus design and it was brutally rigorous,” he described by phone last month. From this, he started making drawings with a rapidograph pen, a technical drawing pen with a .001 mm line—“a line like a thread.” Basically, a magnifying glass slid onto the barrel of the pen. Looking through this lens, he would make drawings with lines that were so close together they would form gullies and peaks on the paper, looking like topographical contour maps. These drawings were his submission to the Fine Arts Work Center in 1976.

In his first week in Provincetown, he took a class on the Ecology of Cape Cod with the newly formed Center for Coastal Studies. The students, who represented the wide eclecticism of Provincetown in the '70s, met in a building in the former Chamber of Commerce Building overlooking the fishing fleet at McMillan Wharf. Every week, the crew of strangers learned about a different aspect of the ecology. They pored over topographical maps, took water samplings from tidal pools, and examined the different species of marine life. As he puts it, he became obsessed with the scale of the place and did realist drawings, as well as photographs, of different objects on the beach or in the dunes. He studied how animals moved through the tidal flats, how they burrowed, and the patterns they left behind.

For three summers, he and his wife, poet Cynthia Huntington, lived in a dune shack called Euphoria, as caretakers. They were helping Hazel Werner, a well-known Provincetown woman who had been Eugene O'Neill's nanny. Their days often were spent alone in each other's company with the shifting sands and primacy of light. The footsteps on the beach left there by Philip Malicoat's morning constitutional and the gift of vegetables from his garden left on the doorstep by nightfall were signs that they had not awoken on some other planet. Huntington's critically acclaimed The Salt House describes the time they spent living in the dune shack.

In 1984, Bert Yarborough went to Africa on a Fulbright Fellowship to study Yoruban carving in Nigeria with master carver Lamidi Fakeye. With the experience of an expatriate living in the underdeveloped world, Yarborough awoke to the visually laden drama and poignancy of man's relationship to his environment. To this day, he defines his trip as being a catalyst to his current journey as an artist. He speaks of the “disconcerting obsession” with which he keeps returning to the imagery that he brought back—birds, teardrops, ritual coupling, and ceremonial masks.

Yarborough is a member of the artist-run gallery artSTRAND, and his work is exhibited several times a summer in group and solo shows. He has enjoyed a close friendship with many of its members, such as Jim Peters, Paul Bowen, Bob Bailey, and Breon Dunigan, since they were all emerging artists with Fellowships at the FAWC. At the time of his exhibit at PAAM, artSTRAND exhibited his wonderfully rendered and wash-stained drawings of figures. There are marks that share characteristics with works by artists as diverse as Roberto Sebastian Matta, Susan Rothenberg, Cy Twombly, Antoni Tàpies, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

As he took a break from a session of the FAWC Visual Committee, in the middle of evaluating the submissions for the next winter's Fellowships, he spoke with his characteristic gentility and affable manner. I was finding it hard, however, to ignore the beautiful and obscene contorted figures around him in various stages of arousal, turbulence, and even political confrontation with the viewer. He was comparing his experience of being in Provincetown and that of being a foreigner.

“When I am here I am enveloped in a mist. When you are over there you're like a rabbit, totally aware of everything around you. You have a knife-like awareness. The work is really about the polarities, these two very different experiences weighing on each other, balancing each other.”

Ever since these two intense experiences of place — one at an outermost house in Provincetown and the other in Africa — Yarborough has distinguished himself through this powerful stance toward the figure. He spent much of the decade upon his return from Africa painting abstractions involving the figure on unusual materials.

From 1985 to 1990, Yarborough worked on large grommetted canvases, surplus material found at the Marine Specialties in Provincetown. They could be rolled or hung up easily. He went to California in a van with them, as well as into his new studio near the home he made in 1995 in White River Junction, Vermont. The tarps could be transported and worked on separately but combined for the large pieces he describes as “having a presence” or “being my size, pieces I can walk into.”

The choice of the tarps illustrates his relationship to artwork as a verb rather than a noun. He works on anything that fulfills the criteria of economy, practicality, and fortuity. The used bunk tarps also can be seen as working specifically against the framed canvas as an art object removed from the public good and its use value as a material. They cleverly suggest that Yarborough does not go out of his way to imbue each work with the aura of his originality and its preciousness as art object to be consumed as a commodity. Originality and enchantment they have in abundance by themselves, while they bear the traces of their own production.

While his figurative work strains against classicism, the beauty can be found in the unfurling energy of Yarborough's line as it describes human energies and their ultimate transcendence over alienation and discord. His most painterly gestures bear the distortions of time passage, as in "Find the Moon Again", or erotic stimulation, as in "Who Am I?" and "Who Are You?" Find the Moon Again is a portrait with classical proportions that is nonetheless of our time. It shows a man looking resigned to sitting for the painter, even while a porous brushstroke alongside his face describes a nervous agitation of the future or the past.

On the far wall of the Patrons Gallery at PAAM, an enormous figure lies prone over three equal-size square panels, flanked by two others portraying the sun and the moon. The first panel contains the sun, the next three the figure, and the fifth the moon. The figure itself is part human, part insect, part landscape. The parts, both male and female, jut out like caps of the Himalayas. Inside the body lies a blood-pumping organ, linking the work to famous Tachiste Jean Fautrier, an association that bears fruit throughout. Like the great French painter, Yarborough's genius in depicting the human form tends toward showing the parts we tend not to put on display.

There are several suns and moons in this gallery. They are curious objects so I had to ask him about them when we spoke by phone in mid- April. “The sun and the moon are the last things I ever thought I'd be painting,” he explained. “Can there be anything else that has been drawn, painted, or photographed more than the sun and the moon? I am aware that they are totally weighted, filled with centuries of meaning and resonance, natural, human, and symbolic. But I wanted to see what would happen if I took everything else out of the painting and left those. On the one hand, they are symbols. On the other, they are containers for paint.”

It is not an accident that in the most recent paintings the sun and the moon appear in his work in place of the figure itself. These two celestial bodies are symbols par excellence of the polarities in general: Apollo, god of light and time, versus Bacchus, god of wine and the vine. Rather than a dialect, Yarborough's work can be seen as a deforming, unmasking, denuding of the human form to reach a singular aesthetic in which human joy and suffering become distilled as geological.

It is possible that black and white were never so richly luminous as in the two-paneled acrylic painting called Together, from 2004, a painting that resists forgetting. Each panel shows a man and woman sharing an ethereal body with breasts and genitalia appearing as sources of pink life in the dark galaxy. The bodies glow from within with a celestial light beneath a moon and a velvet black sky, looking both enchanted and discontented in equal measure.

Reva Blau is a freelance writer living in Boston and Wellfleet, Mass.

To read about Professor Yarborough's upcoming exhibition, visit News Briefs.