Sabra Field at Middlebury College Museum of Art


Middlebury College Museum of Art

Through August 13, 2017

If you don’t live in Vermont, perhaps the name Sabra Field doesn’t ring immediate bells. But you know her art. With the possible exception of Woody Jackson—he of the black and white Holsteins that grace Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream products—no recent artist has done more to evoke Vermont’s rural heritage than Ms. Field. Not many artists can claim that 60 million people have seen her work. In 1991, she pulled out nostalgic stops for a red barn, verdant fields, green hills, and blue skies ensemble that graced U.S. postage stamps. If that sounds more commercial than artistic, read on.

Although she is now 82, has lived in East Barnard since 1967, and has been producing art since her undergraduate days in the 1950s, her Middlebury College retrospective is aptly titled “Then and Now.” It includes old favorites among the 100 works on display, but also more recent work like a sixteen-panel assemblage titled “Cosmic Geometry,” which on the surface appears to a collection of spirals, angles, architectural details, shapes, and natural objects, but which might also be viewed as metaphors for life and passages. Even more stunning is her “Pandora Suite,” a powerful exploration of the human experience from the exaltations of love to the ugliness of racism and the insanity of war. There’s much more to Sabra Field than barns and farms.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that Field is first and foremost associated with tranquil wood block prints that capture the solitude of the Vermont countryside. And if you wonder about the postage stamp thing, consider that for many years Field grappled the same challenge that most artists face: how to parlay the creative spirit into something that resembles making a living. She raised a family, taught art to supplement the family budget, flogged her work at craft fairs, and did small shows. Emily and I first saw her work in the 1970s at the Montshire Museum in Norwich, and the fact that it’s science museum gives you a clue that Field's impact was more modest back then. Here’s another tip-off; we own a few of her prints—things we bought for much less than they’d go for now! 

 If you look hard at Field’s prints, you begin to realize that she’s doing more than romanticizing rural vistas or seeking to fossilize fading ways of life. There is a Zen-like quality to a lot of her work. In some cases, Japanese aesthetics are pretty obvious, but there are others in which it’s subtler. You stand before scenes of waving grass, puffy clouds, undulating fields, and lumpy mountains that are bisected by fence lines, silos, shadows, of contrasting patches of color and, without realizing it is happening, you sink into a meditative state. Others, like “Fox in Winter” or any of a number of deep frost scenes force you to think upon the dance of life, struggle, survival, and mortality. Or, if you wish, you could just see her work as appealing to the eye. If you can make it to the show, though, you’ll learn from the captions and a video that Field had more in mind than simply making pretty pictures. My personal take is that we ought to take regional artists such as she much more seriously than we do. But I suspect that Sabra Field would be happy that people like what they see—no matter what they make of it.

If you can’t get to Middlebury before August 13, don’t despair. Ms. Field is an alum and the college is a repository for her work, so there’s likely to be something on display next time you’re passing through. And there are always Vermont galleries to consider. Field is now such an icon that it’s a rare independent gallery than doesn’t have something of hers on offer. You’ll know her work when you see it. First the color will grab you, then the composition, and then…?

Rob Weir


More Bad Ideas

It's nice to know in our age of limits that there's never a shortage of bad ideas out there. Here's the latest bountiful crop.

Men's rompers take the already ridiculous fashion industry to depths I couldn't have even imagined. I am actually at a loss for words to describe how appalling I find these. Simple message to anyone who thinks donning a pair of rompers makes you a hipster: No! They make you look like a bigger rube than a Bernie Madoff investor. Take a good look. I wouldn't wear one of these to bed for fear of mattress rejection. Wait. I take it back. I did wear these to bed—when I was two. I'm stupefied that any guy would wear one of these.

A dubious hero.
Alex Honnold is an amazing physical specimen and a brave guy. He's also incredibly lucky. Honnold is the first person to scale Half Dome at Yosemite National Park solo without the use of any ropes or safety equipment. He did it four hours, often hanging over sheer drops that would have sent him to a quick but terrifying death. I get it. Mountain climbers know that what they do is dangerous, thrive on the adrenaline, and accept that risks. I don't mean to belittle Honnold's achievement in any way, but making him into a media hero is a very and idea. About a dozen people per year already die in Yosemite and valorizing acts such as this serves only tempt those with less skill and common sense to try to top Honnold's feat. If you think I exaggerate, check out the numbers of injuries and deaths associated with trying to top stunts in the Dumb and Dumber movies. We should not give such exposure to acts such as Honnold's. What he does with his life is his business, but it should a private act, not a media circus.

Is this the best way?
Last Saturday I was strolling toward my local farmers' market and was approached by religious pamphleteers standing by a sign that read: "What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?" I politely walked on by as I've (finally!) learned that there is no point in debating those whose minds are already made up. I will say, though, that in my life no gay person has ever tried to convert me to anything. Nor have they ever accosted me on the streets, rang my doorbell, or stuffed a pamphlet under my door. Mostly, though, I have come to think that on-the-spot proselytizing is a bad idea. I think the same thing when Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons come calling. Does anyone ever open the door, take a pamphlet, fall to their knees, scream "Hallelujah," and give all their assets to The Watchtower? Or don a white shirt, tie, and black pants for Brigham Young's sake? I am not anti-religion, but it seems to me that this sort of raises ire, not followers, which is what happened at the farmers' market in decidedly gay-friendly Northampton, Massachusetts. Plus, I happen to think that Christian conversion efforts rely too heavily on the Paul on the road to Damascus narrative. Conversion to anything—faith, sobriety, or political ideology—is almost always a process not an instance.

Imagine a world...
Pulling out of the Paris Accords is beyond a bad idea—it's an act that moves the hand on the Doomsday Clock. Most of the Climate Change deniers aren't actually anti-science; they are just so pro-greed that they refuse to contemplate the future beyond the next investment quarter. They are perfectly willing to parry your concern for your grand kids with a middle digit thrust upward. The sad part, though, and the really, really bad part is that they are allowed to get away with this. That is to say that we give forums to such craven people and allow them to spread falsehood among the gullible and/or less informed. I'm generally not a fan of censorship, but I would favor laws to prosecute climate change denial along the lines in which Germany has outlawed Holocaust denial. Let me put it this starkly. If you are a climate change denier, you must ask yourself this question: "What if I'm wrong?" It's lunacy to gamble on being right. Far better that a future generation should laugh at alarmists than there be no one left to laugh. It's a very bad idea not to oppose withdrawal from the Paris Accords with all your might.



Things to Come: Seriously Compromised


Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Les Films de Losange, 102 minutes, PG-13. In French with subtitles.

Things to Come has captured quite a few film awards. Mia Hensen-Løve won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival, and critics in both New York and London chose Isabelle Huppert as Best Actress for her work in this film. I am at a complete loss to understand why. My only guess is that critics somehow believe that the film's anachronistic messages are still relevant, not decades past their sell-by date.

Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert) teaches philosophy at a Paris high school and, in her spare time, dotes on a former protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). She is intellectually satisfied, has a thriving career as a textbook writer/editor, is the mother of two adult children, and dwells in a tidy Paris home with her husband Heinz (André Marcon), a university philosophy professor. The two share an abiding love in all things deep and academic. The only seeming complication is that Nathalie has a needy, elderly mother, whom she treats as more of an annoyance than as a concerned daughter/caregiver.

As such films go, things fall apart. Heinz leaves Nathalie for a younger woman, her mother dies, and she inherits a cat named Pandora to whom she is allergic (or so says the script, though Nathalie shows no outward signs of being so). Allegorically speaking, we are about to open Pandora's box. Nathalie even loses her job with the publishing house, which suddenly discovers there really isn't much of a market for a firm that only sells philosophy books. Hello! This has been the case since the 1970s. Sorry, but I can't believe that anyone in the 21st century is making big royalties from publishing cheap paperback philosophy tracts. Nor do I believe that it took France 40 years to discover that academic presses aren't goldmines. But for now, let's assume that any of this is remotely plausible. Nathalie's reaction to her snowballing misfortunes? "The future seems compromised."

If only this were the singular thing in this film that was compromised. It plays like Woody Allen at his worst. As in Allen's films, no one in Things to Come speaks like a normal human being. This is certainly the case of Nathalie's high school students, all of whom seem to be like Jean-Paul Sartre in teen garb. Moreover, Natalie's laconic acceptance for her new reality strikes all of the wrong notes, even though we are supposed to imagine that she has been freed to pursue an authentic existential self. I have lived an academic life and I have seen intellectuals dissolve their relationships. Can I just say that most of these partings are more Nietzsche than Sartre?

I get the fact that Nathalie is stuck in 1968, the year France was in rebellion, students like she were at the barricades, and the French Fifth Republic nearly tumbled. I also know that the ideas were taken very seriously back that. Keywords: back then. Nathalie isn't a Marxist gamine anymore; she lives the bourgeois life she loves to critique. In like manner, Fabien fancies himself an anarchist but he's really, as Heinz points out, an impolite leech. Nathalie later visits him at a self-styled anarchist commune tucked among the Rhône-Alpes peaks that replicates some of the worst 60s-style chauvinism. Other than that, it seems more like a ski chalet than a commune.

A scene that makes even less sense takes place in the Paris movie theater, where a man gropes Nathalie. Who the hell is he? A former lover? A pervert? We never find out. When Nathalie storms out of the movie, the man follows her, but never says a word before sulking off when Nathalie yells, "I'm not in the mood." This is a creepy scene with a distressingly trite resolution.

You don't need to be a philosophy major to figure out this film's themes. Natalie is an aging 50s-something woman on the cusp of losing her desirability. (She's actually 64.) Her daughter and her child represent the continuation of her physical life and Fabien and his circle are symbolic of her intellectual legacy. Natalie needs to reinvent herself for the final phase of her life, lest she end up like her whiny mother. All of this is so heavy-handed that this film can be said to be seriously compromised.

Rob Weir