Art Road Trip : Shelburne Museum in the Off-Season


SWEET TOOTH: THE ART OF DESSERT (through February 18, 2018)
HOOKED ON PATTY YODER (through January 21, 2018)
Shelburne Museum
Shelburne, Vermont

Summer places in the offseason generally exude one of two vibes: forlorn or tranquil. Luckily Vermont's Shelburne Museum falls into the second category, once you get used to the fact that most of the buildings are closed and you're sharing a big area with tens instead of hundreds. From May 1-October 31 the museum is the domain of families, school groups, and bused-in tourists; after that, the energy level plummets and mellowness prevails. Even the docents sense it; they grow gregarious and are as curious about you as you are of what's on offer.

Prior to the 2013 opening of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education (PCAE) dreams of spring was the only thing on offer. Now the Shelburne Museum uses it to showcase small exhibits and cherry-picked permanent collection items year round. Just four other buildings are open, but first a look at two wonderful exhibits that you're not likely to see anywhere else.

Sweet Tooth: The Art of Dessert is the perfect holiday exhibit. T'is the season to pig out, so we might as well redeem ourselves and think about calories as art. Sweet Tooth works because of its puckish humor and conscious lack of seriousness. It's also true to the spirit of Andy Warhol, who understood that pop culture had an aesthetic, so why not an oversized crumbled piece of metal painted as a Zagnut Bar? Try to pass by Margaret Morrison's sumptuous canvas titled Chocolates without drooling. How about designer shoes fashioned from cake batter, or Wendy James' call-it-like-it-is assemblage Empty Calories? But Chris Campbell steals the show with his short perspective-defying videos. My favorites were of a medical emergency in a field of Twinkies, a man being rescued from having fallen through the surface of a crème brulee, a dare devil motorcyclist launching skyward from a wedge of cake, and a hysterical scene of a snow blower plowing through a donut forest and spitting powdered sugar into the air. Great stuff that's guaranteed to put a smile on your face. 

I might have suggested therapy had you told me beforehand that an exhibit on hooked rugs would be one of my favorite art shows of the year. I absolutely adored Hooked on Patty Yoder. Yoder (1943-2005) loved sheep and she honored them in the very wool she sheared from them on her Tinmouth, Vermont farm. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Yoder's Alphabet of Sheep, 26 themed rugs, each with an alphabet embedded somewhere in the design. Some are in plain view, others are so cleverly disguised that finding them is an adult version of Where's Waldo? Everyone gets into the act, including the docents; apparently no one has yet located the namesake letter in H is for Hannah & Sarah, A Civil Union, Yoder's rug in honor of Vermont's legalization of same-sex partnerships in 2000. You can't stop looking for the letters and because you look long and hard you doubly appreciate the intricacy and skill of Yoder's designs. I suspect you'll also walk away having confirmed that the line between fine and folk art is little more than 
snobbish convention.

It was certainly not a view shared by Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), the wealthy heiress whose collections of both folk and fine art led her to found the Shelburne Museum in 1947. The Webb Gallery and the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building are now both open in the offseason. In the first you can see everything from luminist paintings to oils of country life, but its star attraction is Andrew Wyeth's ambiguous and unsettling Soaring. Do the vultures circle coincidentally, or does decay reside in the farmhouse below? On a cheerier note, I thought I had gone through a wormhole connecting Vermont to Northampton, MA when I saw a painting from Ashfield artist Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1850-1923), whose work is featured at Smith College, and several from Charles Burleigh, Jr. (1848-82) whose work is currently featured at Historic Northampton. If you need more high-falootin' stuff, it's always a joy to stroll through the Webb Memorial Building and marvel over priceless French Impressionist masterpieces, but the building, which recreates rooms from the Webbs' New York City apartment, also tells another story—the trappings of great wealth abound but it also feels like a place in which actual people lived rather than a—wordplay intended—museum.

In that spirit, the newest building to be winterized is the Dorset House, which is devoted to bird decoys. I've never hunted nor cared much about decoys, but I was pleasantly surprised to the degree that the collection has been reorganized and rationalized in ways akin to the weathervanes and trade signs in the Stagecoach Inn (next up on the winterization list, but currently seasonal). In other words, the decoys are now presented as folk art, not just fowl hunting aids.

And folk art is what the Shelburne Museum is really all about. Though you'd have to go back after May 1 to see it, everything else in view is devoted to folk art. But I can't recommend highly enough getting there to see the exhibits currently at the PCAE. Savor the desserts and find the missing H. Take in the Wyeth, admire the Impressionists, and finish off with some decoys, a stroll around the Round Barn, and a visit to the gift shop. The pace is relaxed and it will cost you less than half of what you'll shell out when you return after May 1.

Rob Weir   

No comments: