In The Zone III
Judging the work of 270 artists in one day by looking at slides is a daunting task. That was my assignment as the guest juror for the 2011 edition of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center’s triennial exhibition, In the Zone III. The “zone” in which artists must live or work to be eligible is large: either the entire state of Vermont or within 100 miles of Brattleboro.
From the 270 applicants, I chose nine. This seemed a good number so that each artist could have enough room in the galleries for viewers to get a sense of that artist’s intent. Those chosen are a sophisticated group, obviously aware of the international art scene. Almost nothing, other than their addresses, links them to Vermont.
Although the exhibition contains no cows—that Vermont icon—there are a lot of ducks, thanks to Lucy Sander Sceery’s near-obsession with rubber duckies. She owns hundreds of them, in different sizes and shapes, stances and expressions, some even in costumes. (Lest she seem really obsessed, she points out that there are collectors in California who own them in the thousands.) She uses her ducks as a metaphor for humanity, for each person’s individuality. For Sitting Duck, she designed and built more than 100 little Adirondack chairs, painting each to go with the duck that would occupy it. She arranges ducks and chairs to suit the architecture of each museum or gallery where they appear.
Christopher Sproat’s Red Vein was also inspired by a creature of nature—a red dragonfly. Sproat’s work is physically dramatic and message-laden. Red Vein is over 18 feet long, about 100 times the size of your average dragonfly, and is suspended from the ceiling, seeming to fly and flutter its way across the room. Sproat, concerned with biotechnology and the need to rebuild our habitats, made Red Vein of recycled materials—MDF, composed essentially of sawdust, and long tubes of red cold-cathode lighting that came from another work he made.
The closest to traditional of any works in the show are Rita Edelman’s exquisite canvases, built up of layers of acrylic paint, with haunting images lurking deep in the background as if yearning to get out. Her interest in ancient symbols and surfaces led to current works influenced by Egypt.
The most astonishing thing about Leonard Ragouzeos’s ink paintings is that while the objects he tackles are small—a doll, a head of garlic, toy balsa wood airplanes—he inflates them to monumental proportions. The painting of Butchie, a male doll he was given as a child, is nine by five feet, a commanding image. October Garlic was in part inspired by garlic he grows in his garden, which in turn led to thoughts about garlic as healthy, its shape as sensual, and the protection it provides against vampires.
Nancy Winship Milliken observes that we live in a nontextural environment ruled by our computers and cars. She attempts to counter that with large-scale installations, both indoors and out, that are made of highly textured materials, including uncarded wool still tangled with hay. Outdoors, this makes for an opulent surface that is gradually undone by wind and weather. Why wool? To her it represents the old New England, when sheep ruled the land. She often collaborates with the farmers who produce the wool. They enjoy its smell, she notes, and so does she.
Monofilament, which is essentially plastic string, is John Paul Gardner’s medium of choice. He has used it in large, delicate, web-like structures that establish boundaries within a space, or steer viewers in a particular direction. They’re a way for him to combine drawing and sculpture. Gardner plays off the spaces where he installs his works. For In the Zone III he uses his assigned location, the Museum’s stage, to make his first vertical installation. While he usually works in spaces with only artificial overhead light, in the Brattleboro piece he has his first chance to capitalize on daylight, which streams in from a rectangular skylight over the stage. The ambitious work uses 3,690 feet of monofilament, a length of more than half a mile.
Richard Heller discovered oak tags years ago and continues to admire their unpretentiousness. His tags, the sort generally used as shipping labels, are all 2-3/8 by 4-3/4 inches, and he buys them at Staples. They’re a no-fuss sketchbook substitute. He takes them wherever he goes and captures whatever catches his eye: images from realms including the cultural, the political, and the abstract. He arranges hundreds of them in a grid on the wall and, while their placement has special meanings for him, he leaves viewers to form their own interpretations.
Angela Zammarelli’s “characters” aren’t necessarily human. They can be motions, emotions, places she goes, dolls, chairs, or houses. Sometimes she animates objects by performing with them, occasionally in the guise of a shy homebody. She once made a large, squishy chair out of dozens of mismatched fabrics, with a bag of fragrant herbs—she’s fond of herbs—hanging overhead to calm the person reclining in the seat. She also creates cardboard buildings that suggest houses; audiences can peer into them to inspect the contents.
The Chinese-born artist Le Xi makes brief videos, some just a minute or so long, emphasizing opposites: stillness and motion, darkness and light, figuration and abstraction, energy and lack thereof. Ordinary objects, such as a trash can or a wheelchair, become screens on which to project hyperactive images. The objects are also symbols: the overflowing trash can, of consumerism and waste; the wheelchair, of humanity’s desire to be on the go despite physical restrictions. The results are mesmerizing.
The high level and also the diversity of the work of the artists in this exhibition prove that you needn’t live in New York City’s SoHo to create advanced, provocative art. At the end of that longish day of jury duty, I thought, I can’t wait to see this show!
—Christine Temin, Juror