The Girls Gang Up at Dianich
A group show of locally recognized women artists, at Catherine Dianich Gallery during March, had no less than nineteen highly individual and mature styles of work included within the gallery. The exhibition, along with a larger group of women exhibiting simultaneously at the Hooker-Dunham Gallery one flight below in the same building, showed the remarkable number of women artists on the Brattleboro art scene and made one wonder if such a group of men could ever be assembled. Indeed, it was obvious that there are an equal number of well-known local women artists who might have been included, were there a sequel to this feminine collection. This review will concentrate on the upstairs nineteen.
The show at Dianich included numerous approaches to photography, painting, drawing and mixed-media works. The front room was dominated by large canvases painted by Mia Scheffey. Scheffey's work in oil paint creates a loosely patterned spacial field of interrelated brush strokes which is consistent over the surface of the painting. This surface pattern of gestural marks, a feather blizzard maybe, is the conduit for an expressive color statement in each work. In "Coming Storm," on the front gallery's large wall, fiery and smoky flakes of color emerge from a Carravagiesque darkness. An interesting treatment was seen in the predominately green-colored canvas entitled "Standing by the River," within which a rectangular form was introduced in transparent glaze, over the Okeefenokee -- like depths that might also recall Monet's familiar Waterlilies paintings.
Complementing Scheffey's oils in the front room were photographs by Evie Lovett. Two works seemed exotic in content but ironic in tone. One piece, entitled "Marlboro Gender Bender Ball," was taken at the Marlboro College "Gender Bender" party and depicted two young boys in amateur drag. They stare at the viewer with Jimmy Dean eyes but seem to be more in the Halloween mode of such transformation. Next to this photograph, another of Lovett's pictures presented a chorus line of three figures in black women's bathing suits, arm-in-arm, evidently dancing. Each sports a "No Bush" political button, pinned on south of the navel. This jolly protest provided a unique moment of humor in the otherwise eclectically serious collection. Also on view in the front room was a precious work on paper, a short poem in conjunction with an embossed print entitled "Fleur de Lis: A Lunar Moth Poem," by Julia Ferrari.
Another vision in photography was expressed through two works by lenswoman Lynne Weinstein. The two photos of toughened working women used closeups of feet and hands, allowing a sort of body language to tell the story. In "Broom," a well-used straw broomhead rests gently on the floor between two strong, bare feet. The feet belong to a woman, as do the stocky, strong calves which surmount them, flanking the broom handle, which, rising up, is held by unseen working hands. Working women's hands are central to the second composition, aptly hung together with Broom as a pair. "Laundry" catches an equally capable set of women's hands in strong, slightly fatigued grasp, gathering up fresh laundered cloth, strewn with a pattern of stars, seeming to cascade down through the freshened folds of linen. The theme of "work" and the rough-edged reality of such, was reflected in the working "frames" of the photos -- a rough, unfocused edge strip in which the photo chemicals can be seen doing their thing -- that constituted the outer quarter-inch of the image, a border reflecting the darkroom activity inherent in the printing process. These photographs made a strong feminist statement.
The color Pink was immortalized in a three-panel work by Julia Jensen, in which the word appears, dictionary-like, in pink type, below a bold rendition in paint of a large pink flower above. The flower seems akin to a swirling, dancing figure in a billowing pink dress. Small rectanglish pools of warm pastel shades float below in an incomplete grid like little watercolor pigment pots. Nearby, a bright, expressive display of rosy pinks, yellows, reds and pale mauves are splashed through an expressively rendered female figure in Wendy Slater's oil painting on paper. This artist uses the female form as a conduit for expressive mark-making -- blending and rubbing the pigment and scratching into the paint to describe the form. The use of paper on a larger scale was also found in the sketchy rendering of a blueberry patch by Lydia Thomson -- using gesso, carbon and charcoal -- entitled "Blueberries on Ice."
Included on one of the gallery's hallway walls were a number of small landscapes. "Hen Hill, Westminster" by Ailyn Hoey was a deeply expressive work in charcoal on paper. Dark, dramatic and silent, this austere moment of evening's transition offers only the suggested details of some cattails in the foreground and darkened foliage on a distant hill. Petria Mitchell's small canvas described a sweeping view across a hillside towards a distant gray mountain barely visible in the mist. Beneath the subtle description in pigment on the surface of this painting are larger gestures visible in the paint, swirling through the mist and quiet sky which blend together in the upper area of the composition, "Near Round Mountain."
River Gallery artist Barbara Campman was represented by a piece she called "Innerlight." In this work, a tiny square is adhered onto the surface at the center of the composition. It is, itself, a small abstract design which decidedly resembles the pelvic area of the female form. It floats over a sparsely suggested window shape, a vertical rectangle divided above and below and drawn in, just lightly. The window itself, in turn, hovers in an expressive but minimally described landscape, while just below it, two small roselike flowers reach heavenward, shyly. Campman's expression seems personal enough to have come from a private journal and is expressed, often, through a long-established, selective vocabulary of metaphoric symbols. Portals and dwellings are familiar elements in her oeuvre.
Another landscape featured the wet-on-wet watercolor technique of Pam Glick Swing. This melting vision was almost hallucinogenic in its description. "Realityscape 191" focused (well, almost focused) on a farmhouse in a country setting framed by large, vertical tree forms. The entire subject seems to have first been drawn as a large shape in water and then worked into. Faint pencil guidelines can be seen beneath the paint, observed from the house that inspired her. The dark window shapes and horizontal siding of the house are saturated and swimmingly described with the brush working into the wet surface, while small paving stones of a walkway in front are like droplets of oil on water. The area around the large shape in blue pigment depicting the landscape, the leaf from a watercolor block, was left white and untouched, adding to the picture's surrealistic qualities and reinforcing the extreme use of saturated wet-on-wet technique.
The landscape was invoked also in the photographic work of Kerry Kazokas and blended with the female form in a work entitled "Liberation." Kazokas has also used the starkness of a solid white background for expressive contrast. In this celebratory figure, budding branches are silhouetted over floating clouds in a landscape quoted and filtering through the expressive figure of a dancing woman. Her arms reach outward and upward in celebration of life. The shape of the woman is represented like an empty silhouette, but filled with the imagery of the tree's winding branches, obviously taken in a separate photograph, and manipulated together in the darkroom. While the symbolism of nature inside of woman is familiar, the pose of the figure was also reminiscent of Christ on the Cross or the more generic symbol of the man-on-the-tree. The work seemed to define a poetic and alternative irony.
A winding stream snaked back through a sunny pasture to the wedge of a distant hill in a pastel by Dee Dee Jones entitled "Stream." And two small oil paintings by Simi Berman, "Speaking in Tongues" and "Untitled," were colorful collections of playfully organized, expressive swirls and shapes in brushy oil paint. Dede Cummings had an example of her graphic design combining poetry and image in an elegant work on paper.
A very strong image was visible ahead in the hall as one entered the gallery: a small painting on wood by artist Susan Breary. "Deer at Browse Line" depicts the gentle, silent form of a curious doe whose upward gaze is likely focused on a potentially palatable leaf or apple. There is movement here, of the doe through the mist, an energy or presence, of implied significance or spirit. A slight orange glow around the upper part of the deer's silhouetted shape sets off the form, which is pictured on a hazy ground of grayish-blue. Lines from the grain of the wood underneath the paint have been selectively traced into the ground, lines that express feeling but might also be sound. Breary's vision seems, in fact, dreamlike or actually from a dream. The atmospheric background borders on the surreal, and the doe appears to have shamanic symbolism, like an image remembered from a dream, clearly but in illusive detail, and somehow embodied with an invisible power. Then again, it could be that this artist has recognized the dreamlike quality of the dawn and dusk, when the deer move from cover to open spaces or back into the safety of foliage. Or perhaps it can seem like the spirit world opens at moments like these. This painting, which could be compared to Degas' racehorses on one hand or Susan Rothenburg's neo-expressionist paintings of horses on the other, was deeply compelling.
Two paintings by Molly Burke were landscapes within landscapes. In the painting entitled "Parting," a deep landscape space gives way to the scene of a small farm and cornfield on a swiftly flowing river. The entire scene is encircled by a bloom of large purple flowers. Right within the open river at bottom center, sits a large, unexplained bowl of tomatoes. Immediately behind this element of a still-life is a gated portal revealing a smaller scene within the larger painting. The portal enters into a landscape depicted in smaller scale of another house on a river, this with a canoe floating, empty, in the river in front of the house. The differing scale of the two independent scenes keeps the viewer's eye shifting back and forth, in and out, between the two points of focus. The unexplained bowl of tomatoes and significantly empty canoe give this artwork an element of surrealism.
"Tree of Life" repeated the relationship between two images. This time a placenta-like tree expands out of the center of the painting, surrounded by four tiny barns. This central image is wreathed in a swirl of large, ripe peaches. Both female and male pickers are represented separately at left and right; their picking baskets full, they flank the central image. In a way, these paintings seem like they are missing a familiar myth to fill in the details or symbolic meaning of things, such as the four tiny floating barns, but perhaps this is a setting for the viewer to imagine their own myth or story. The shifting scale between images is reminiscent of pre-Renaissance compositions and Indian or Persian miniatures, which gave elements within a picture varying scale depending on their importance in the story being depicted.
Centrally hung in the gallery's hallway were two powerful works by artist Marcy Hermansader. "Sampler" is a piece which evolves around the central image of a pair of wild ducks floating in a mountain lake. The image, printed on an antique postcard, has been enhanced by the artist and adhered from the back over a small oval cutout at the center of the museum board used in the piece. Framed within the oval, the male duck floats in the foreground; beyond him floats the less brightly colored female, glancing in his direction. The male duck has his eye on the viewer and stares out intensely from his antique lake. Radiating out, above and below the horizontal oval surrounding the small printed card, are butterfly-winglike loops in different colors, each containing an abstraction of a texture found within the postcard's image. The bottom central loop is filled with a pattern inspired by the feathers on the duck's back. To left and right are interlocking loops with textures from the water. Two of these loops, which fan out symmetrically across the composition's upper half, have patterned shapes inspired by the mountains and clouds in the little landscape of floating ducks. Behind and around the winglike loops is a soft gray background that has been incised by rolling a little spiked wheel over and over across it. The work exudes a strong presence and powerful calm. Viewing it is a ponderous experience that opens to a soft, vivid clarity. Patterns depicted within the loops are similar to the patterns abstracted from nature found on traditional Japanese kimonos, and they recall the manner of that form of abstraction in ancient times. The energy felt through the repeated perforating of the background is like the intensity found in certain fetishistic African figure sculptures.
A second piece, hung to the left, was entitled "The Skunk's White Wishbone." This painting, inspired by a small toy skunk found by Marcy at the Shelburne Museum, was included in an exhibition of work inspired by the Museum. The artist was touched by her realization that the skunk's stripe was in the shape of a wishbone. She found out that this is also true of live skunks and saw a poetic irony. The resulting earthy shamanic totem draws the viewer's eye directly to the center of the composition, where a feathery white stripe glides across the glossy black coat of the skunk; the black tail, also striped, hangs down. The shape of the hide is as if it were stretched to be tanned. This small tangible subject radiates rounded forms that develop into a thin, glowing orange line creating a peanut or guitar shape, which hoveringly surrounds the intense black and white center. Within the orange line two tentacles extend down, and the shape of a droplet, upwards. The paint used for these extending shapes was applied thickly enough to create a shadow-casting pattern of textured relief within them. While the relief is not physical enough to notice from a little distance, the tiny shadows created on the surface rhyme well with a texture made from rubbing a pencil nearby. It's very subtle. The background seems like great folds of concrete and features some sections of wall where bricks have been incised into the museum-board surface. The diverse and earthy textures in this art object rhyme and interrelate, as shapes communicate both pictorially and abstractly. A love of materials is evident. The artist seems to almost be going beyond the visual, as the work gives the viewer a deeply mysterious and at least somewhat hypnotic experience. Both of these works were framed exquisitely, and the work was one of the highlights in the group.
Adding to the eclectic mix were two large photo montages by the photographer Maridel Rubinstein. In both of these works, nine images were graphically arranged in a grid, recalling windows with nine panes. "New Growth" featured a standing frontal view of an Asian man. In the eight sections surrounding him, images of trees and foliage are overlaid or underlaid with woven cloth textures which seem at first to be physical elements but, on closer inspection, are discovered to be seamless and a part of the surface. The piece was toned in sepias or copperish brasses. The companion piece, "Old Growth," shows a woman in the central position, she being of a more advanced age than the previous male. In this similar composition of images, cloth patterns were more expressive and the color green favored over the earthier tones in "New Growth." The work might be pointing to the belief that human culture, in ancient times, was matriarchal, and perhaps suggests, gently, that we might be better off if it had stayed that way.
Hats off to Catherine Dianich Gallery for gathering together so many locally based and original woman artists with separate and distinct styles, mostly mature and all interesting. A portion of exhibit sales will benefit the Women's Crisis Center, and the gallery plans to make this show an annual event, scheduled to coincide with the Women's Film Festival as it did this year.
Copyright 2006, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont