Saturday, March 10, 2012

CURATOR'S ESSAY: Storytime at Studio Place Arts (SPA) in Barre

by Janet Van Fleet

When I made a commitment to curate Storytime at Studio Place Arts (where I have my studio, and am on the Gallery Committee) I was interested in exploring the human impulse to construct narratives. I have noticed that even when people are looking at abstract work, they often see images and construct stories about what's going on. We need to make things make sense -- and not only descriptively (what it looks like), but also narratively (what's happening).

When I called for and selected work, I expected more pieces with words and text -- lots of comic books, drawings, collages, etc. That just didn't come in, even when I solicited it, but what I got is truly fascinating and of amazingly high quality. I think this is one of the best exhibits I've curated at SPA, where I've put together eight major exhibits over the last eleven years. The Storytime theme is a rich one, and the work in the show includes stories about such diverse topics as violence, family, animals, and the high seas. There's humor, charm, and insight, and the pieces relate to other work in the show in interesting ways.

The thirty-six artists whose work is included in the exhibit hail from Oakland, CA to New Hampshire and they tell stories through video, sculpture, painting, drawing, digitally- manipulated images, watercolor, and collage. The exhibit also features a Publications Area, with original comics, 21 books and booklets by Peter Schumann from the Bread & Puppet Press, as well as unique artist books. Most of these stories feature people in the title roles. Very large paintings of people in interesting contexts by four different artists dominate the Main Gallery. Fly Boy, by Salem, MA painter Jill Pabich, shows a young boy leaping, almost coming out of his jacket, into the sky above a field of wind turbines. There is a piece on paper by Janet Fredericks, from her Minute Particulars series, about which she says "In a recent waking vision, I was visited by a brother who died when he was ten years old. Charlie…appeared with a swarm of bees hovering over him." Fredericks felt the bees could be speaking to Charlie, and maybe it was important to pay attention to what they could be saying. A large double-sided piece by Dana Walwrath explores the dementia of her mother, Alice, in The Aliceheimer's Project. And, in a cultural nod to Scheherazad, a big drawing, August 2010, from Valerie Hird's Maiden Voyages project, depicts Middle Eastern women who kept a journal of their activities on the same date each month for one year. Then Hird, without ever meeting or seeing these women, produced large drawings that are a pastiche of that month's experiences.

A photograph by Kate Bieschke, of Oakland, California, shows two figures wrestling on the grass. Nearby, a sculpture by Phil Whitman, The Historic Berkshires: Prisoner Pile Along the Waloomsac, with historically-accurate costumes (both on -- and removed from -- the prisoners captured in 1777 during the American Revolution), references the events at Abu Grahib, but with Americans and German mercenaries in the place of Iraqis.

Four videographers show work that ranges from the playful, through the ambiguous, to the mock-horror genre of Slasher, by a collective from Brooklyn called Cereal Lab, that presents a young woman in a sexy Heavy Metal outfit wielding a machete and axe to slash, decapitate, impale, and ultimately drink the "blood" at a dolls' teaparty. Nancy Dwyer contributed two short pieces, Brains and Trancecart, presented in self-contained 7 inch players.

Also in the Main Gallery are three ocean-themed pieces - John Douglas's double-exposure of 3 oil platforms and three sailing vessels, another sculpture, Triska Decka, in Evanston, IN artist Rob Millard-Mendez's series of ships and boats (begun in 2008, after The Boat Show that I curated at SPA), and Adelaide Tyrol's huge painting Kraken, showing a mythological sea-monster squid surrounded by lamps from the deep.

The exhibit continues on SPA's second floor, with images that feature animals and animal stories: nine of Burlington artist Jude Bond's prints of original collages that superimpose heads and jewels from Bazaar magazine on drawings from a period children's book of the Cat Family (Lions, Leopards, and Lynxes, Oh My!), two large mixed-media sculptures by Rachi Farrow (Chimeras in Burkas), a photograph by Jack Rowell showing a stuffed moose in Currier's Market in Glover, and a touching mixed media painting by Kristin L. Richland (Creature and Healer).

Our stories carry our explanations, however incomplete or provisional, for why things are here and why things happen. Narrative tries to answer the great WHY, though not always without ambiguity. What is wonderful about the objects in this exhibit is that by embodying the questions, they evoke from us the narratives that struggle toward answers, and the viewer who pays attention – as should be the case in the visual arts – is providing much of the story.

Storytime: The human impulse to construct narratives is explored through painting, video, sculpture, photography, and published materials
Studio Place Arts, 201 North Main Street, Barre, VT
Exhibit Dates: March 6 - April 7, 2012