Friday, September 18, 2009

REPRINT: Scot Borofsky's Wall of the Americas in Brattleboro

By Arlene Distler

Last July, during Brattleboro's monthly Gallery Walk, a phalanx of art lovers made their way to an empty lot behind a chain-link fence, off the well-trod gallery path. They were going to look at a mural executed on a foundation wall that rises up against one of the tiered streets that surround downtown.

They saw artist Scot Borofsky's most recent gift to his hometown, a mural of sorts that he calls "Wall of the Americas." Borofsky brings to Brattleboro's landscape his unique vision - a blend of the enduring infused with the street-smarts of the here-and-now, a vision he offers to people who happens to wander by and lift their eyes.

Borofsky cut his artist's teeth on the streets of New York City's Lower East Side in the '80s, when he first developed a love of an art form that doesn't fit tidily into a room, that you don't have to pay to see, and that viewers are obliged to see in the context of their daily lives.

Borofsky attended Brandeis University and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Rhode Island School of Design in 1981. He received a Max Beckman painting scholarship to work at the Brooklyn Museum in 1981 and 1982. Just out of school, Borofsky joined the influential cadre of painters of that era, painting 25 "wallworks" and then going on to be represented by Mokotoff Gallery, one of Manhattan's leading galleries at that time. Borofsky's work is featured in three books on the street art movement.He returned to Vermont in 1991.

While media - and law enforcement - focused on the renegade aspect of "tagging" and street art, according to Borofsky the real message always was that art is meant to be integrated with life. "Street art takes in, by its nature, the immediate surroundings: telephone poles, street lights, bridge abutments," he said. "It all becomes part of the artwork."

Coming down Elm Street from Canal to Frost Street, one gets a distant, intriguing glimpse. But the work is meant to be seen at street level and, when the artwork comes into view, it opens into a colorful world of an Andean rainforest, the geometric, abstract visual remains of an ancient civilization.

Street art meets Vermont
Borofsky's colors (courtesy of Krylon spray paint, used since his New York heyday) are somehow both subtle and primary: reds, oranges, greens, and blues. One section's design is bright purple. There are geometric spirals, "stepped" shapes that use the bricks to enhance the design, stylized animal forms, looming mountains.

During the five-year gestation period when Borofsky first noticed the wall and realized it was a perfect canvas for his art, he learned of the petroglyphs - primitive rock carvings, along the Connecticut River in Bellows Falls, some 20 miles north. The artist has incorporated a facsimile of those petroglyphs into one area of the mural.

Honoring the mural's location in southern Vermont has been an important part of the process. "I wanted the images on the wall to have a connection with where it is, so I included the petroglyphs, and painted local wildlife like deer, squirrels, fish into it," Borofsky's says. The thunderbird, or eagle, an oft-repeated image in Native American art, shows up here, as it often does in Borofsky's oeuvre. Fair enough, as eagles nest at the Quabbin Reservoir, a few miles south into Massachusetts.

"I am taken with the idea that civilizations rise, flourish, disappear; and that ultimately nature prevails," he says. Thus it was important, says Borofsky, that this wall has sections that have architectural "nooks." Something has been there and is now gone. And in this case nature has definitely prevailed.

The artist confessed he had to hack his way through overgrowth to get close enough to paint. Thick vines still drape over the top of the wall. He found a birdhouse nearby that had broken open and revealed a miniature moose head inside - presumably for the edification of its bird tenants. Recalling that story seems to delight him. "I love the specific history of a place," he says. "It all affects the painting."

Borofsky says he worked for eight hours a day for three days, then eight days for three hours a day - geometric balance, even in his work schedule. "And then some tweaking," he adds.
Finding his own vocabulary
In a 2005 artist's statement, Borofsky described the development of the geometric motifs that pervade his work. "For a long time, as I emulated Ancient Chinese landscape painting or Pre-Columbian abstraction and graphic design, I simultaneously developed my personal collection of symbols, using methods of 'blind drawing' invented by the artists in the Dada art movement," he wrote. "These symbols I set in different cultural and historic contexts, such as outdoor urban spray-paint installations or painted photographs from the ruins of Pompeii. They were often abstracted from drawings of animals or people. I look for archetypes."

Borofsky then "randomly began to draw these symbols right on top of each other, building up visual relationships and a 'story' between them," he wrote. In admiring the work of abstract expressionist painter Philip Guston, Borofsky discovered that Guston made creative use of the golden mean. "It seems he used this ancient system as a base for improvisation, much as a blues musician improvises freely by sticking to the 1-4-5 blues chord progression," Borofsky wrote. "I thought, if this worked for Guston, it's worth a try. This was a major breakthrough for me."
Borofsky has since pared down his visual vocabulary - a result, he says, of "taking everything out that wasn't mine."

"It's sad," he continues, "because I love the artists that my work referenced in the past," citing in particular Gericault and his "Raft of the Medusa," which was the inspiration for a series of paintings in 2000. The process of letting go of influences is akin to "growing up and setting sail," he asserts. The disparate elements in "Wall of the Americas" evoke the feeling of a "ruin" while the work retains a visual integrity, perhaps arrived at not only through the long, patient execution, but also through the power of the artist's unique vision.
Borofsky, using very ancient motifs and images in a 21st-century context, asks more of the viewer as well, hoping that the art can be viewed without the aid of the familiar, without previous knowledge of art history. The same impulse, perhaps, inspired artists of the early part of the twentieth century, Picasso in particular, to incorporate themes from African art.

Borofsky has traveled extensively throughout Mexico and points south, and his visual language is thoroughly steeped in Pre-Columbian iconography and symbols, a time when images were inseparable from the spirits of the people who created, and appreciated, them. "My influences come from diverse sources such as the stepped geometrics of Aztec culture, Mixtec weaving, Mayan ruins, and Navajo and Plains Indian art," says Borofsky.

In "Wall of the Americas" in particular, he quotes ancient forms, using sketches he made while traveling. Still, these forms have become a personal vocabulary and are transformed through Borofsky's sophisticated sensibility, through juxtaposition with invented forms and their context. Along with Pre-Columbian imagery, Borofsky has inserted a section inspired by Japanese art, a stylized depiction of distant cloud-topped mountains, a motif often found in his murals and canvases.

Peaceful imagery
Currently Borofsky is working on several paintings in the lobby of the downtown building where he has maintained a studio for many years, the Barber Building, owned by his family and housing at street level the family business, Sam's Outdoor Outfitters. And so, in the lobby murals Borofsky has chosen the inspiration of Mount Wantastiquet, a few hundred feet across the Connecticut River from the door of the building, and the Green Mountains surrounding Brattleboro on its western and northern edge.

In discussing these paintings Borofsky talks about his artistic decisions. "The colors and shapes have a psychological impact. I think about that! I try to have my designs be uplifting. For example," he continues, "a Japanese pagoda's shape and a Roman arch give very different feelings."

When they are finished, the painter hopes they will instill a sense of mountain light and peace.

This article was previously published in The Commons Newspaper, Brattleboro, Vermont.

Arlene Distler lives in Brattleboro, Vermont, her base of operations as a free-lance writer, poet and artist. With a fine arts background, she writes primarily on the visual arts for Vermont newspapers and magazines, and regionally for Art New England. She may be reached at (web site in progress)

Photographs by Ezra Distler, a freelance photographer based in southern Vermont.
He can be contacted by email at