Thursday, May 6, 2010

REVIEW: Kate Donnelly at Catamount in St. Johnsbury

By Janet Van Fleet

Last night I had a dinner party to celebrate a friend’s birthday, in the course of which my friend talked about how her (grown) children had never asked questions about her own background and childhood. This concerned her enough that she was planning to write something about her life before her children knew her, so it would be on record in case the coming generations ever wanted to know.

In the current exhibit at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, Vestiges, Kate Donnelly is concerned with just such family stories. Her statement laments the passing of previous generations of her own family, who have not left stories, or whose stories are so sketchy that she is left with more questions than answers. She says, “My great-grandfather Green died while lifting a tree that had fallen on his friend. Now that sounds like a story I'd like to hear - but there's no one to tell it, it's lost. Exactly how did he die? Did the tree, in turn, fall on him? Did he have a heart attack? What were they up to? Was it even true? What happened to his family afterwards? Who is his friend and what does his family know? Those are questions that spring to my mind but I've only the vestige of a fact left - and no story.”

The exhibit is sparse and elegantly mounted, perfectly illustrating the rule that Less is More. There are five small sculptures, three modified negative prints, and two large installation pieces featuring multiple 5x5x5" boxes. The two box installations (see upper left) are the most powerful elements in the exhibit. The Colorful Boxes, held together by upright wooden slats to which the boxes are tacked, dominates the center of the exhibit space, radiating color and energy. The boxes, open on the back (see image at right) to allow light to penetrate and illuminate their jewel-like colors, are collaged from such diverse materials as paper doilies, wrapping paper, shopping bags, maps, and food wrappers. The piece is joyful, celebratory, and full of zest.

As brilliant, colorful, and open as these boxes are (like a model of rich, open family histories), the Plain Brown Paper Boxes are, by contrast, wrapped in monochrome brown paper and stacked on a shelf with no identifying information. You can pick them up and shake them, and hear tantalizing sounds, but you will never really know what’s making the sound, like all those questions about our ancestors that will never have clear answers.

I am partial to things on wheels (and pull toys), so was particularly taken by the two small sculptures on wheels, Sleeping Ancestors and Old Maid.

But one issue artists and gallerists need to grapple with is the question of signage – how much, where, and why? Four of the five small sculptures in Donnelly’s exhibit have a sing-song poem posted on the adjacent wall which, while it does illustrate the artist’s motivation and intention, strikes me as a false note, taking away from the power of the artwork to speak for itself (and maybe even say something other than what the artist was thinking, but that’s what art is about – a huge universe of possible interpretations that engage each viewer individually). Ironically, there aren’t titles associated with the pieces, but rather numbers, keyed to a pricelist that contains the titles. I would have much preferred to have the titles by the work, with the poems and statements on a carry-around sheet or notebook. Number 4, Family (above left), had no signage, but still managed to speak volumes. If the work is strong, as Donnelly’s work is, meaning will be made, and the wise artist lets it happen naturally.

Vestiges will be on exhibit from May 1-31, 2010, with an opening reception on Friday, May 7 from 5-7 PM.