Most are of cows, straight-on, behind barbed wire rendered so real that it's hard not to touch the artworks' surface to see if they're not three-dimensional. There are also some horses and dogs, but overall, what catches one are the deep eyes staring out. Call it a point of contact, and the way into the passionately felt and lived sense of deep empathy that is at the core of all this major artist's work.
Jagger has been living outside Kerhonkson for more than 30 years, having moved here from rural Pennsylvania, where she moved out of the City to when she realized that her art was bigger than could be made safely in New York. She keeps horses, chickens, dogs; has herds of cows nearby; knows and loves the ravages of the seasons on the animals she lives alongside. She follows the travails of her land and feels betrayed when she finds the carcasses of deer starved over a rough winter, or has to help out a beloved mare dying after a gruesome accident. All works itself into her art, which has proved itself singularly memorable to any and all who have had the chance to encounter it over her long career.
She shows off the drawings that will be showing at Pearl Arts Gallery and the Drawing Room, a short walk from each other along Main Street, where she made them in a windowless inner room within one of the barns on her hamletlike farm. They're intensely drawn, collaged from various pieces of paper at times; raw and yet completely engaging; big. Surrounding one, they seem to question our humanity, what we are doing as a species on and to this world that we inhabit with them.
"Cows are the animals we've had our longest relationship with. It's as if they've paused and looked at us deeply," Jagger is saying, as she talks about she has felt renewed by this recent two-dimensional work after a career making monumental sculpture, just as her parents and grandparents did before her in England. "I've really had a boom with this... it's penetrated my mind."
Jagger moved to the States during World War II, a few years after her father died unexpectedly when she was four - a passing that she says still haunts her. She eventually went to art school in Pittsburgh, then Philadelphia. She started showing as a painter in New York, trying to steer clear of her family destiny in sculpture - until some workmen pointed out how any painting that needed several men to carry it indicated an artist more drawn to sculpture than the classic two-dimensional media.
She made relief molds of manhole covers and got herself grouped with Pop artists, then started pouring and molding lead. Once upstate she switched to massive trees held up by ceiling-mounted chains, then worked the bones and cadavers of dead animals, suspended in decay, into her works. Meanwhile Jagger has stayed perpetually youthful in her approach to work and life, engaged in not only remaking her works and finding new ways of exploring her particular take on the world that we inhabit, but also that world in which she lives so fully.
She got to the current cow portraits, she says, after getting involved with her local Rondout Valley Animal Rescue efforts and taking agility courses with her dogs. She became involved with the Pearl Gallery's Chrissy Glenn over time, and did a special showing of a massive cement-and-latex work of racehorse hoofprints in the City last year. She got to know Denny Dillon and her Drawing Room via shows and get-togethers.
Jagger moves us on to a barn where she works on and keeps her massive pieces, some of which have never left the space. One is a swirl of dead deer parts and farm implements, suspended from a high ceiling. Another matches giant tree trunks at a point intersected with bluestone and iron pieces. Another suspends whorls of barbed wire, saws, dead cats and other found objects in a manner that pulls our entire relationship with our domesticated world into question. If there's anyone whose work I've seen that deserves a major museum retrospective in one of our great rural contemporary art destinations - be it Dia:Beacon, the Tang or MassMoCA, hers is the oeuvre.
So how did Jagger move from painting to this singular sculptural work back to drawing, and bring with her such a vision from the start? She speaks about how hard it was to take up her father's calling, as well as how difficult it's been to go back to drawing after barreling about in the big-footed world of major sculptural art statements - but also about the means by which she has always wanted to express messages learned from the animals that she has made such a part of her life, always. She cites the necessity of incorporating grief and pain into the art that we encounter, as a means of making all our lives more full and responsive and empathetic once again.
"I left England when I was seven. I had to leave my calf behind. Since that time, cows have always been part of my life," she shows me that she has written when she first started showing some of the new work that will be exhibited in Stone Ridge this coming season. "I have rescued them and cared for them and come to know them deeply, personally. I have also come to know how in the last 50 years, commercial agriculture has turned cows into manufactured things. I look at slaughterhouse photos and I feel an unstoppable rage. The cows in their terrible suffering are abandoned in a monumental blindness, a total disregard for them, a complete indifference."
Jagger then adds how seeing the reproduction of Albrecht Dürer's Head of a Stag, "a little drawing of a stag with an arrow through his head," convinced her that there was artistic merit to what she wanted to do, on a level with her larger works. "I realized that Dürer's subject was compassion. His compassion beat down my rage," she adds. "I began to draw the cows, the cows I knew and the cows I thought about." And we are now all the winners.
"Gillian Jagger: Kindred Spirits" is a major undertaking, given the fact that Jagger's work usually shows in museums or New York galleries. It also represents a first for local galleries coming together to put on ever-bigger shows, drawing attention to the monumental aspects of our contemporary art scene as well as the quaint and homemade. It's must-see work, and as strong a way of getting into the empathetic elements of the season as the ghoulish and autumnal remind us all of our mortality.
The two shows open at Pearl Arts Gallery, at 3572 Main Street, and the Drawing Room, at 3743 Main, from 5 to 9 p.m. this Saturday, October 17. They then stay up until November 22.
For further information, including gallery hours and special appointments, visit Pearl at www.pearlartsgallery.com or call owner Chrissy Glenn at (845) 687-0888, or visit the Drawing Room online at www.thedrawingroomonline.com, or call owner Denny Dillon at (845) 687-4466.