Art: Jamie Wyeth's barnyard critters

Many of his paintings in "Farm Work" depict animals from his own Del. farm.

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Jamie Wyeth's regal portrait of white leghorns is among 70 works in the current show - his largest ever at the Brandywine River Museum and his third in four years. It collects work the artist, who will be 65 Wednesday, has done over the last half-century.

Jamie Wyeth, like his late father, Andrew, was destined from childhood to become an artist. Also like Andrew, who died in January 2009, he was a precocious talent.

The immediate evidence for that is the earliest work in Jamie's exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum, "Farm Work," accomplished watercolors such as Kennedy's Butter and Eggs, Mr. Borneman's Barn, and Stanchion Stall, all painted between the ages of 13 and 14.

Jamie and his father ran on parallel tracks for a half century, but the son was always an independent spirit, especially in later years.

His formal art training came from his aunt Carolyn, yet in pictures such as Horse Tub, with its intense focus on a mundane object (in this case, an old bathtub), Jamie appears to be paying homage to his father's austere interpretation of reality.

Jamie will be 65 on Wednesday, and yet, perhaps because he's still Jamie rather than James, I continue to associate him with the image of the pensive child in the coonskin cap that Andrew immortalized in the 1952 drybrush watercolor called Faraway.

Jamie and Andrew were like a binary star, orbiting each other, sometimes looking alike while at other times - Jamie in particular - expressing a distinct personality. He has always been a difficult artist to categorize because, aside from being a realist, he doesn't fit neatly into any pigeonhole.

Now that he has inherited the inevitable position as the most prominent living artist in the Wyeth clan (several of his cousins paint, including one named Andrew Nathaniel Wyeth), I should file Faraway under old business and begin to look more closely at what has been occupying Jamie's attention all these years.

Which brings us back to "Farm Work," at 70 works the largest show he has ever had at Brandywine and his third in four years.

In 2007, the museum presented "Dog Days of Summer" - more than 60 paintings and drawings of pet dogs Wyeth has known over 40 years. Two years ago, he showed a small suite of paintings called "Seven Deadly Sins" that featured seagulls as protagonists.

"Farm Work" plays as an ambitious sequel in that many paintings depict animals - cows, pigs, chickens, horses, ducks, goats, and geese - that inhabit the artist's farm on the Delaware side of the Brandywine River, a few miles south of the museum.

While Point Lookout is a working farm, no farm work takes place in "Farm Work" (the show title comes from a recent painting of a cow licking its hindquarters, as a cat would do).

Farming is evoked first through images of animals - some, like chickens in boxes, posed for effect - and second through objects such as barns, milk cans, and hay bales. The exhibition is an omnibus collection of work that he has made over the last half-century.

If it doesn't tell us much about farming, it reveals two significant qualities of Wyeth as a painter. The first is the ability, which he shares with his father, to invest mundane objects like the old rusted bathtub being used as a drinking trough with powerful resonance.

In 1968, for instance, he made a watercolor of a bucket placed upside-down on a milk can that he called Tin Woodsman, an allusion both to the human figure and the character in The Wizard of Oz. This isn't a complex concept, in fact it's almost childlike, and yet the result is seductively iconic symbolism.

The same could be said for Spring Plowing, a 1965 watercolor that depicts not the actual turning of the earth but the lethal, shining blade that does the work. It's an image that neatly connects the occasional beauty of working the land and the backbreaking labor inherent in doing so.

My favorite example of this kind of transformation is the 1972 oil of a boxlike bale of hay sitting in a pasture. This bundle resembles any other, there doesn't seem to be anything special about it, but Wyeth has infused it with a glowing aura, as if it were consecrated. It's the definitive bale of hay.

The other dominant quality in this body of work is Wyeth's empathy and affection for animals, particularly those he has come to know through repeated contact on his farm. He doesn't usually try to make them cute, nor does he anthropomorphize or otherwise compromise their essential natures.

His most famous expression of his connection to animals is probably the 1970 oil Portrait of Pig, which depicts an imposing specimen that Wyeth rescued from the abattoir. This pig, named Den-Den, glows with robust health, despite, as Wyeth relates, once having eaten 22 tubes of oil pigments he was using to make another picture.

Pigs seem to be the artist's favorite animals, but he's equally tuned in to cattle, particularly the glowering beasts he portrayed in the large 1974 oil called Angus. In the book that accompanies the show, a running commentary with illustrations, he explains that the animals look piqued because they were trying to get to a tank of heated drinking water on which he had planted his easel, and himself.

In recent years, Wyeth has painted some menacing-looking birds that seemed less than cuddly, like the glossy black vultures wheeling against a yellow sky in Portrait of Vulture.

These birds, like the aforementioned seagulls, are vigorously brushed, but more striking is the way the vulture is portrayed - in extreme closeup, as it would be seen by fellow vultures.

With chickens, Wyeth does dip a toe into cuteness - chickens in hanging baskets, chickens in cardboard boxes that once held cans of motor oil. I'm a chicken fancier myself, so I was especially taken by a magisterial formal portrait of several white leghorns (good for eggs and meat) in a shimmering gold frame.

Up to now, I had considered Reading native Ben Austrian (1870-1921) to be America's most accomplished poultry-meister, but these leghorns are so regal that the title must now pass to Wyeth.

The most intriguing painting in the show, the one that best suggests the variability and the complexity of Wyeth's interests and his willingness to adopt unorthodox approaches, is the oil Pointlookout Farmlife. It's a melange of wild and domestic animals, from deer and horses to Canada geese and goats, seen in a bird's-eye view modified by scale shifts.

It's not realism, exactly, but more an amalgam of observation and memory that could signify the joy of living for so long with so many animals, and painting them as if they were boon companions.


Art: Down on the Farm

"Farm Work by Jamie Wyeth" continues at the Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford, through Sept. 11. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $10 general and $6 for seniors, students and visitors 6 through 12. Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywine

museum.org.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/

edwardsozanski.