Saturday, June 5, 2010

REVIEW: Hall and Stohlberg at T.W. Wood Gallery and Arts Center in Montpelier

By Janet Van Fleet

The T.W. Wood Gallery and Arts Center space, located on the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, is the biggest and most elegant exhibition facility in central Vermont. However, shows there have often not looked their best because the historic building’s owners insist that nothing be affixed to the walls, so paintings have to be hung on long wires hooked to picture rail. Why is this a problem? Because it doesn’t allow framed work to sit tight to the wall, the tops lean away from the wall and there are always those distracting wires sprouting above every work. But the current exhibit at the Wood is one of the best I’ve ever seen there, in part because panels (left in place following the annual high school art exhibit) are suspended from the rail to allow wall-mounted work to actually be affixed to the wall; this is a clean, beautifully hung show.

Of course the work itself is the primary concern, and it is top-notch. Catherine Hall’s wax-covered objects and Axel Stohlberg’s constructions are extremely compatible. Each artist has half the large gallery space, and all the work is confident, perfectly executed, engaging, and beautifully arranged. Interestingly, both artists’ three-dimensional work is figurative (Hall: faces, Stohlberg: houses), while their two-dimensional work is primarily abstract.

On the gallery’s east wall Hall shows ten wall-hung cases of faces in plaster, gouache, and encaustic wax, titled with reference to their colors (Turquoise Faces, Yellow Faces, etc.). At the end of the row, Spotted Faces draws us across to the west wall, and what Hall describes as her most recent work, eight encasements of faces in black, white, and subtle earth colors. This is a series of pieces called Fossil Faces and Broken Faces that seem to me her strongest work, primitive in feeling, that suggest early human works of plastic art in clay and stone. The surface treatment employs lines, dots, and craquelure.

Fossil Faces I, in particular, with its tight grouping of small and large heads (many mottled, as though with pox) is particularly powerful, a display thick with dotted faces in a splendid variety of textures and varieties of black, white, and grey.

On the south wall of the gallery, Hall shows two pieces that are much more lighthearted, like a trip to the toy store – Menagerie (2007-2010) and Doll’s Clothes and Cabinet (undated).

Axel Stohlberg's side of the Main Gallery is dominated by two large structures, including a set of accordion panels with a profusion of 33 pieces he calls Marquettes (below). These gems are for sale at $65 each, and many had already been sold when I visited shortly after the opening. Which brings me to another need to digress: Why is it that three-dimensional work is always priced relatively lower than drawing and (especially) painting? Is it because people are more inclined to buy something that doesn’t take up much room? Do people think it takes more skill to make paintings than sculptures? Is it the notion that only painting is “real” art? I don’t know, but I keep seeing this disparity, for example in Stohlberg's pricing in this exhibit...

But back to business: In the northeast corner of the gallery Stohlberg has created a dramatic installation called BIG HOUSE (at right), constructed of wood, windows, and screen doors. On the inside, the words HOME, HOUSE, NEST, and SHELTER are inscribed with china marker. This wonderful construction is monumental in size and concept, while at the same time delicate and fragile, much like familiar childhood memories of home.

In other medium-sized pieces mounted on pedestals, houses teeter precariously on wobbly structures, are studded with nails, or scoot away on wheels. Stohlberg has a genius for finding and using found objects, making them (with the addition of wire, tiny plastic figures, or odd bits of hardware) achingly tender statements of psychological truth with a side helping of humor and playfulness. That’s not something that many artists can pull off.

In this same corner, all Stohlberg’s two-dimensional work also employs the House theme, grouped by media, including reworked monoprints, acrylic and graphite, china marker on black paper, oil pastel, and charcoal. Houses tumble, multiply, and drift out of focus. In Yellow II and Night Light, a house actually appears to be acting as a beacon, radiating light. Again, Stohlberg dishes up some profound stuff about home-and-hearth (and what they refer to, such as the self, stability, “home is where the heart is”, etc.) in a subtle sideways fashion, without preaching or over-determining. Other 2-D works, on the west wall, are from his series of boats, canoes, and vessels.

The South Gallery, a smaller room behind the large Main Gallery, contains nine mixed media pieces by Stohlberg, two on the theme of the four seasons, while Hall’s 14 pieces called Icons use oil, glass beads (such as are used on reflective signs), and gold leaf. These works are loose grids of intense pigments with incised lines and a subtle sheen from the glass beads. Six small vertical icons make a pleasing grouping, emphasizing the soft vertical bands of color. Also holding them together as a group is the inclusion of a rectangular area of cadmium red in each image, which causes the eye to flit around from one red spot to another until it comes to rest in the lower right piece, where the red is softened and sweetened by an overlay of the ground glass beads.

This is a great exhibit to move through in whatever order you please, and the journey will be decidedly worthwhile. Catherine Hall and Axel Stohlberg’s work will be on exhibit at the T.W. Wood Gallery and Arts Center in Montpelier from May 25th to July 18th 2010. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 12-4. I’ve found that sometimes on weekends the gallery may be closed, so you might want to call 828-8743 to make sure before traveling a distance.

Images: Top (visitor viewing Catherine Hall's encasements) and bottom (The exhibit artists, Catherine Hall and Axel Stohlberg) courtesy of Kevin Beauchamp. Remainder: Janet Van Fleet