Wednesday, January 12, 2011

REVIEW: Muffin Ray at Catamount in St. Johnsbury

by Chuck Gallagher

Peacham Vermont artist Muffin Ray’s show entitled Recent Works opened this week at the Catamount Arts Main Gallery, where it will be on exhibit until January 31st. Ray’s large salvaged canvases are at once luminous oil, resin, wax and dimensional floral “paintings” and, then again, they are intricate, quilted recycled textile art…or both.

The mood of the reception honoring Ray held last Friday night complemented her art. It was cheerful, interesting, friendly, elegantly casual and down to earth. Muffin is fun to be with. There was a patchwork of people and perspectives in attendance that held together as warmly as the artist’s honey drenched floral and tapestry mosaics. Ms. Ray, like her art work, has a growing and devout following. As I approached Muffin to congratulate her on the show, she was proudly showing photographs of what she called her “best work”, her four children. Her artistic perspective is equally wholesome and distinctly “Vermont”.

There is a Yankee frugality that serves as the foundation for all of Muffin Ray’s recent work. All the materials used in her art are salvage – recovered from attics, barns, basements and even the town dump. Like a hardscrabble, hilltop farmer coaxing a crop to grow where others could not, she creates beautiful, mysterious and thoughtful paint, resin and fabric art from uniquely rough beginnings. At first viewing you must look hard through the amber oil and beeswax finishes to identify the raw material of her work. Later on, you find that it’s impossible not to see what, at first viewing, seemed hidden below the surface of each piece. You realize that these discarded textiles, wall treatments, old quilts, boxed clothing and material “throw-a-ways” are the heart and soul of the work. Ray’s new work, as much as anything, casts discarded materials in a new light and hints at her perspective. She’s not hiding her cast-offs, she’s highlighting them. Like a Leonard Cohen heroine, she’s showing us where to look amid the garbage and the flowers.

Whether it was a stroke of genius or a wonderful coincidence, Catamount Arts should be congratulated for timing Muffin Ray’s Recent Works show in the Main Gallery with a cinema showing of the art-documentary Waste Land.

Waste Land follows artist Vik Muniz to his native Brazil and the world's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There Muniz photographs an eclectic band of “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. His portraits of Rio’s catadores, done in recycled materials picked from the landfill's garbage are transformative.

While Vermont and Jardim Gramacho are worlds apart, Muniz and Ray, as artists, are independently exploring a common theme. There is beauty and dignity and value in people, places and things that, often, we just don’t see. Sometimes art provides a lens, changes the light, opens our heart, and gives us a new perspective. These two shows at Catamount Arts this week complement each other and give us an opportunity to see what we might have discarded in a new light.