Saturday, November 13, 2010

Four Reviews: Elizabeth Nelson at the Supreme Court, Montpelier

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of running a workshop at SPA in Barre, called “Writing About Art.” Writing about art clarifies ideas we’ve seen in visual art, as we learn to organize the visual information we’ve gathered. It turned out that of the seven shows we visited together, Elizabeth Nelson’s exhibition at the Supreme Court became the subject for four reviewers: Mel Campbel, Dian Parker, Michelle Barber, and Leslie Thomas. These four reviews, from different points of view, reveal Nelson’s show in different ways.

-- Marc Awodey


Review by Mel Campbel

Today is the “morning after” so to speak. After the election, that is. A Republican influx has regained control of the House and picked up a few seats in the Senate, though not enough to control the Senate. In total, enough to throw a wrench into the already dismal political process. A bright light, a touch of crazy in all this gray, is Jerry Brown winning as governor of California. He now has made history as being voted in as the youngest and the oldest governor of that slightly crazy state. He’ll be 72 when he’s sworn in.

What, you may well ask, does this have to do with Elizabeth Nelson’s exhibition “In Between”, recently housed at the Vermont Supreme Court. Hot and cold, gray and colorful are words that initially come to mind. Ms. Nelson’s artist’s statement mentions her goal of coming to terms with the harshness of the climate in a cold, isolated region. That region being Vermont.

In her picture “Choice” the cold is chilling, yet the subject depicted is fascinating. There are 2 photos of roads, each flanked by trees that set the theme for the mixed media representation. She builds the picture around those photos, coaxing out each road separately into an apex where they merge in the center of the picture. Above, the sky, which reads cold, is saturated with light, almost in a diamond shape. The colors, grays, silvers, pinks, reds, and whites, express cold magnificently. One could almost fall into a fit of depression because of the colors and the realistic quality of winter. But no, depression is not possible because of the light that emanates where roads and sky merge. The final emotion conveyed is joy despite the obvious chilly gray.

Within the same exhibit is another piece entitled “Crazed Spring”. Rather than a photo as the theme starter, she uses what appears to be decorative paper. It serves as a “conversation starter” for the watercolor depiction of spring. Those of you, who manage to see spring, somehow detect its existence on a yearly basis, as it slams through its sometimes three-week cycle, may enjoy the humor of the title. The season is indeed “crazed”, with new colors, an intense range of greens, chaotic combos of shapes, and bright light arriving willy-nilly. She captures that mood with humor, style, and finesse, exaggerating the delicate foundation provided by the paper. The contrast to her chilly, cold winter scenes is exhilarating, just like spring itself.

As we head into the period of grays, evening pinks, darks backgrounded by white, having left the intensity of what was wild spring, it is fitting to reflect how our weather mirrors our politics with the somber juxtaposed to the whimsical. Ms. Nelson’s range of mood and her ability to see and convey the nuance of our Vermont seasons, however, provides much more joy than does our political scene. And she succeeds in achieving her goal of coming to terms with nature and weather in a harsh and isolated region.


Review by Dian Parker

How often does one have the opportunity to see contemporary art in government buildings in the United States of America? How many George Washington portraits by Gilbert Stuart gaze down upon you, "meant to evoke calm assurance of national community" (a direct quote f
rom the White House’s present curator, referring to the original Stuart portrait of George Washington hanging presently in the White House)? In our U.S. Capitol building there is a painting of Desoto discovering the Mississippi. The very Desoto who encouraged the local natives to believe he was the immortal sun god and gained fame as an excellent fighter and tactician, notorious for the extreme brutality with which he wielded these gifts. Nearby is a painting called "Religion" depicting a veiled woman wearing a cross surrounded by baby angels, the painting called "Baptism of Pocohontas", and "The Prayer at Valley Forge" painted by Arnold Friberg. We have a statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments in the US Supreme Court building and stained glass portrayal of a "Praying George Washington in the U.S. Capitol building.

However, in the Vermont State Supreme Court building in the capitol, Montpelier, from September 7 to October 29, we have inspiring landscapes. Vermont landscapes – snow and dirt roads and autumn foliage -- not of 200 years ago but of this decade. The painter lives in Glover, Vermont; she paints Vermont. Today’s Vermont. Thirty oil paintings, some with mixed media, all by
the contemporary artist, Elizabeth Nelson.

The Vermont State Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority of the U. S State of Vermont. The court mostly hears appeals of cases that have been decided by other courts. It is an important place. It decides important, life changing events. How much more "calming and assuring" it is to walk along these first corridors of the Supreme Court beside Nelson’s bright landscapes and snowy back roads than to pass under Moses’ tablet or to witness an American Indian being baptized. Oh the joys of living in Vermont!

And what a joy to discover Elizabeth Nelson lining the halls of the entrance to Vermont’s Supreme Court. Her summer landscapes are dreamy and her winter scenes cold and striking – so exactly like Vermont. For the past 20 years Nelson has been honing her craft. She has recently begun using actual photographs in her paintings as points of reference, expanding the color and values from the photographs into her oils or acrylics. “Interstate Winter”, acrylic and photo on canvas, 10"x10", is a snow covered road washed in the pink and lavender of sunset. The photograph is dead center and she paints out of it, casting long arms of paint, following the flow of the snow banks.

A more abstract painting, "Crazed Spring" ,22"x22", is done in watercolor with a photograph in the center. Instead of faithfully following the lines of the photo, this time she splays out in dashes of color, just like spring in Vermont. In her 2 paintings, “Double Stream,” 12"x12" and 8"x8", a late winter stream meanders through the snow, each a replica of the other. The colors are rich and deep – Nelson has a sure hand in evoking cold yet her paintings are luscious and warm because of her subtle shifts of light; inviting, mysterious worlds.

Elizabeth Nelson also has four paintings on view in the Bethel-Royalton Public Safety Facility as well as four paintings in the Derby Police Barracks. Along with her recent exhibit at the Vermont Supreme Court, I feel a calm assurance that Vermont is indeed the place to be.

Catch her next show at the Bees Knees in Morrisville, November 9. Have great food while enjoying Vermont art that is current and real. Be calmly assured that you will not regret the trek.


Review by Michelle Barber

Elizabeth Nelson’s “In Between” show at the Supreme Court is a series of puzzles to be solved. Nelson works in mixed media, but largely acrylics, in this show and in many of the two dozen pieces photographs are hidden, painted over and into the work. A sideways glance down the hall of the exhibit reveals the slightly shiny spots in the pieces that contain the photos, drawing the viewer into a search-and-find game.

Largely a show of fall and winter paintings, “Crazy Spring” seems downright out of place, but may, in fact, be the lynchpin of the show title. It is the sole abstract, color-filled piece, completed between 2007 and 2010, on paper. It is also the only piece devoted to springtime, certainly a season that feels awkwardly “in between” the longest and shortest seasons in Vermont. Spawning off of a centerpiece photograph of birch and greenery is a brightly colored cacophony of springtime watercolor exuberance.

In stark contrast, are Nelson’s winter and fall paintings. The majority demonstrate her expertise with light and dark contrasts; the fall paintings present darker values in the foreground and the winter paintings recede those dark values to the background, creating depth and movement for the viewer's eye.

“Pewter (2010)” is a realistic acrylic painting of a snow covered stream with fir trees in the background. Nelson effectively uses blocks and ribbons of darkness (the woods and stream) to add layers to the scene and move the eye from upper right to lower left. She also captures well the stark, but inviting, Vermont winter light.

In “Choice,” two snowy dirt roads converge in the foreground, but photographs anchor the roads in separate places in the background. One can practically hear the slush underfoot. “Choice” most skillfully demonstrates Nelson’s imagination amongst her realistic paintings and leaves one wondering where the two photographed roads actually are and if, in fact, they do converge.

Elizabeth Nelson offers us excellent scenes, playful mixed media compositions, and a very serious eye for Vermont seasons and the light they bring.


Review by Leslie Thomas

The front gallery at The Vermont State Supreme Court building recently displayed a collection of oil, acrylic, watercolor, and mixed media paintings by West Glover artist Elizabeth Nelson, from September 7th through October 29th. This complex exhibit of some 25 paintings, entitled In Between, featured large oil paintings painted on birch, several slightly smaller mixed media paintings, and a small number of abstract watercolors. The dominant themes of the show include Vermont’s distinctive rural landscape and the powerful presence of the seasons in the state, particularly fall and winter.

Nelson skillfully employs an unusual collage technique in her mixed media paintings. By attaching photographs to her canvas, and painting over these photographs, the artist boldly sparks the curiosity of her audience. The photographs are blended into the paintings so expertly, that they are detectable only by close inspection. This technique serves to intensify the concept of her show In Between, encouraging viewers to consider looking at the spaces in between the borders of these photographs, and to contemplate the boundaries of her paintings.

In “Snow Orchard”, two rows of trees stretch out into a distant winter forest background, forming a lane of steely gray snow down the center. The stark contrast of dark tree limbs against the harsh grays and whites of sky and landscape is softened with gentle dots of snow, and infusions of rosy pastel pink hues which emanate from the two photographs that comprise the tree lanes.

Night Blooming Lilacs” features glowing yellow orbs against a black background, amidst a flurry of white specks. Here, the photograph is fixed directly in the center of the painting, from which the intensity of the color seems to spring, almost like a holiday firework. Reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” this painting contains elements of a range of styles, from the impressionist brushwork of the blizzard, to the abstract nature of the subject, to the surreal rendering of the piece.

Elizabeth Nelson’s In Between is an exhibit that successfully captures the essence of Vermont’s natural splendor, both real and imagined, by celebrating both the chill and warmth of her winters, the stillness and motion of her roads, streams, mountains and storms, and all of the places “in between.”