Art Road Trip to Brattleboro, Vermont

Steve Gerberich, Best of Springs, Sprockets, and Pulleys
Robert Dugreiner, Handle with Care
Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant
Brattleboro Museum and Art Center through September 24, 2018

Not many people think of Brattleboro, Vermont, when they think of art museums. After all, it’s a small venue—only five galleries—located in a town of just 12,000 people that’s 100 miles from Boston and 200 from New York. Sometimes it’s a good thing to have some distance between you and the art establishment. The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC) often launches creative exhibits that are not the sort you’d find elsewhere. This summer it has three strong shows.

The star of the summer is Steve Gerberich, an Iowan who has an eye for what he can do with small motors, cast off objects, a vivid imagination, and an offbeat sense of humor. He says his whimsical assemblages are equal doses of Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jean Tinguely, but somehow I think he forgot to mention Rube Goldberg. It takes a creative mind to find a personified plastic mouse, fit it back-to-the-viewer in a box, and then imagine metal tea strainers as cat faces that move back and forth as a rodent’s worst nightmare—even if he is conducting the orchestra!

“Cash Cow” (1990) is funnier still, a wood, bicycle, and hide body—the bovine sporting sneakers instead of hooves—plus various gears, levers, musical instruments, and machine parts slapped together to create a surrealistic milking machine. In other pieces he uses teapots for heads, lampshades for hats, broom bristles for hair, and machine parts for noses to create everything from the world’s strangest-looking rock band to machines that do nothing but still manage to fascinate. Gerberich is just a lot of fun. His kinetic sculptures are where engineering, artistic vision, and boyhood wonder collide. You will smile your way through this exhibit. That is, whenever you’re not exclaiming, “This is so cool!”

In “Handle With Care,” Robert DuGrenier juxtaposes glass and objects to create self-contradictory combinations. For instance, his “In Case of Fire Break Glass” is a series of metal hammerheads attached to glass handles. “Double Burner” is a gas oven grate atop melted glass extruded below. A rusty can is shown with a milky substance pouring forth—also glass. In his own way, DuGrenier is making small jokes á la Gerberich. His are a bit more poignant, though, as a fire that swept away his barn inspired them. In such situations we learn that not even “rugged” implements such as hoes, rakes, and shovels emerge unscathed. On a more basic level, though, mixing glass and metal invites the viewer to reconsider all things prosaic.

Humor has long been the stock and trade of Roz Chast, one of the best known of all American cartoonists and graphic novelists. Her “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant” demonstrates the levity within the deeply tragic: the care for elderly parents and their ultimate demise. The panels on display come from two sections of her memoir: “The Beginning of the End” and “The End.” If you know anything about Chast, you are aware that she had a complicated relationship with her parents; on one hand, they drove her crazy, but on the other they provided an endless supply of mirth and material. Some would classify Chast’s work as New York Jewish humor. Although there is truth in that, her work transcends any particular religious or cultural tradition. How many of us have, at some point, shaken our heads when pondering how we managed to come from that family? And what is more commonplace than negotiating the communications and values gaps that divides one generation from the next? Chast dares wonder if these haunt from beyond the grave. 

The BMAC has several other exhibits that, in my view, are less successful. David Rios Ferreira creates collage like illustrations in which botany, race, gender, and colonialism intersect. Or, at least, that’s his aim. I see that, but only is glimpses. His densely layered surfaces too often come across as chaotic mishmash that's like a dinner entrée with too many ingredients. Maybe it was the obfuscatory statements he made about his own work, maybe it was the overuse of earth tones, or maybe it was that he tried to tick the box of every au courant oppression, but this exhibit never engaged me.

I enjoyed the vibrant colors in “Painting Time” by Debra Ramsay, but it’s hard to get past the reality that this installation is simply strips of acrylic painted in bold hues and strewn willy-nilly onto the floor of a small side gallery. The various colors represent the four seasons. Conceptually, I like the idea of reducing time’s passage to basic colors rolled onto strips suggestive of film stock. Mostly, though, I saw only a pile of pleasant pigments. I would have been more enamored of a video showing Ramsay rolling paint and talking about how we can “see” time as flowing ribbons of color.  

I zipped through “Terrestrial Vale” by Susan Macdonald, her silverpoint and graphite on paper look at plants bedded down for winter. She produces spectral like renderings of bundled-up plants and captures in spirit the fragility of living things as winter settles in. I confess, however, that I have never warmed to the forms Macdonald uses. To my eye—admittedly sharpened by photography—the images appear sketchy and incomplete, as if they are black and white negatives waiting to be printed.

But here’s the deal. Not even artists themselves like or appreciate all art. What’s special about the BMCA is that it’s small enough that visitors end up sampling things they’d otherwise not consider at all. I applaud it for its diversity and its boldness. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll come to appreciate silverpoint.

Rob Weir

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