It's a startling experience to be surrounded by a herd of 100 cow heads hung in meticulous rows in an otherwise bare gallery. As an artist and former farmer, however, Tracy Linder is familiar with this feeling. In Blindsided, her newest sculptural installation at the Missoula Art Museum, the serialized bovines carry a docile urgency that somehow feels ominous, subversive and political. Linder's intent was a meditation on agriculture's origins in a time of industrialization and the proliferation of agri-business. The cows also invoke the complexity of our steadily depersonalized connection to the landscape we count on and inhabit. That idea is a big one to chew on, which is why Linder chose to keep the art piece spare.
The chief potency of Blindsided, however, doesn't stem from its political content, but from its stunning aesthetic.
"Looking at the mass of a circumstance is simply too overwhelming," Linder says. "That's why, in my work, I'm trying to bring it down to the level of the individual, to consider one cow, the source. I don't see it so overtly political as much as hopefully dialoguing."
The concept on the surface appears simple: a slightly tilted, elegiacally posed white cow head molded with handmade cotton paper and replicated a hundred times to powerful effect. But Linder's process plays out on a more complicated level, with slight variations for each cow that accumulate in the eyes of a careful viewer.
First off, the visage of the cow with its one eye facing slightly downward is melancholic and beautiful. Through its duplication it incants a sense of regret and even, potentially, shame about the role we as consumers play in depersonalizing the world around us. And though the paper molds and positions on the wall are the same throughout, the perked ears of each cow are different, as are the steel ear tags Linder has crafted for each one, and the two blades of fescue grass she has carefully placed on each cow's face.
"On the ear tags, all of them are named Aspen after the first cow successfully cloned," says Linder. "[Each tag is] numbered and given a birthdate and my cattle brand 'Bar over TL.' Their birthdate was the day I put the grass on their heads, it was the final step in the process of producing the work."
While the aspect of cloning speaks to the piece's complex dialogue about agricultural mechanization, those ear tags illustrate each cow's genuine individuality on small grass-fed farms, such as the one Linder grew up on.
Then there are the ears themselves.
"They were the open part of the mold, where I could manifest alterations easiest," says Linder.
The large, frayed ears seem open and aware, as if listening. Lastly,the grass—swooping around the snout, curling under the well of the eye or down the brow—enchants the sculptures with a pastoral sensibility. She uses the grass as a flourish, giving the cow heads what she hopes is a "calligraphic or poetic" quality.
As an installation artist, Linder has always worked through a process of physical distillation,serial replication and slight variation.
"I have a tortured two-year development process," she says. "It's something about having this idea come into focus in your brain and trying to figure out how all of that concept can come through. Figuring out what's the right scale, what's the right material, what's the right presentation, getting it to have that formalistic beauty along with all of the dynamics of the concept."
Linder often uses natural materials that come from hunting, scavenging, cutting live tree limbs and other "sacrifices," as she puts it, from around her home. These natural objects give her work a keen groundedness, bridging what she feels is a widening gap between man and nature.
The gallery may feel tense and impending at first. But the more time you spend with Linder's herd and with each individual cow, the easier it is to take in the complexity of a piece that calls for a compassionate communion between cow and viewer.
MAM celebrates Tracy Linder's Blindsided at Artini Redux: AgriCULTURE, with a reception from 5 to 9 PM and an artist's talk Thur., Feb. 21, at 7 PM. Free. The exhibit continues through April 21.