Brattleboro Museum and Art Center Serves Another Winner

Sandy Sokoloff; Amy Bennett; Joseph Diggs; Glasstastic 
Brattleboro Museum and Art Center
Brattleboro, Vermont
[Exhibits Closing June 16]
Click images for larger size viewing.

Alas, by the time most of you read this, these exhibits will have closed. So why review them? The first reason is to give a shout out to the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC), which has a well-deserved reputation for creative curatorship. When you don’t have a permanent collection of beloved masterpieces and are located in a small city, you are forced to think outside the box. Few do this better than the BMAC, which accomplishes that feat by mounting shows from artists that perhaps you don’t know very well, but should.

Any time you find yourself in southern Vermont, you should stop by the BMAC and take a look. The second reason for the review is so you can keep an eye peeled. Most of the BMAC’s featured artists are well regarded in the art world, and once you’re introduced, you'll stumble upon them elsewhere.

Let’s start with Sandy Sokoloff. Maybe that name sounds vaguely familiar. His work wowed gallery goers from the 1970s into the 1990s, before he decided to step out of the limelight. The BMCA show was his first in 30 years and departs from his early work in numerous ways. He no longer works in oil due to an allergy to turpentine, so the canvases in the Emanation show are acrylic. Second, they are large and I mean really large. Foundation and Kindness are each 66” x 96” and Beginning is a whopping 72” x 104.”

Those names are translated from Hebrew. Although Sokoloff labels himself a non-observant Jew, he draws inspiration from the ancient Kabbalah and its esoteric mysteries. This is particularly the case when he contemplates the relationship between the infinite and finite beings such as humans. Sokoloff describes his current works as a cross between Op art and the Big Bang. That’s exactly how I felt viewing his work, even before I read his artist statement. His paintings are immense, bold, and hypnotic. Stare at them long enough and the eye and mind are tricked into thinking they are 3-D. From this point on, whenever someone asks me what the Big Bang was like I will tell that person to look at Sokoloff’s Emanation series.

Curator Mara Williams tracked down Sokoloff in his Grand Isle studio on Lake Champlain. Now that the word is out, I doubt Emanation will remain a secret much longer.

 Sokoloff works big, but Amy Bennett works on a much smaller scale. Her Nuclear Family exhibit is as advertised–sort of. This Beacon, New York painter has exhibited various projects widely. Sokoloff’s work appears three-dimensional, but Bennett actually works from carefully constructed models, which she lights and arranges before painting what she sees on relatively small canvases.

In Nuclear Family Bennett calls attention to the mental “models” we construct around families and some of their built-in contradictions. By painting tidy worlds with such geometrical precision, we subconsciously begin to unpeel myth from reality. She also accomplishes this by displacing our gaze. When she skews angles, it's as if we are aerial spies or peeping toms.

Bennett wordlessly suggests narratives of those we observe, especially when it comes to the roles of women–brides, mothers, domestics–within the family. Yet she also makes those women enigmatic. Bennett’s miniaturized POV keeps us so off-balance that we start to write our own narratives. Is the woman on the floor exhausted, or is she exercising. Does the nursing semi-nude feel trapped, or is she feeling exhilaration? Are the clean, organized displays of material prosperity symbols of comfort and success, or of soulless conformity and sterility? 

Joseph Diggs unhinges us by calling attention to how the world looks through African-American eyes. Diggs works in mixed media for his Proud 2 Be American. It is not
intended to be ironic–he honors his Tuskegee Airman uncle, for example–but it’s hard to be black in America and not comment on racism. Chalk Line Baller, for instance, evokes Negro League baseball, but also memorializes James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged to death behind a truck in 1998. The North Carolina-based Diggs excels is using iconic symbols such as the flag, baseball, music clubs, and military service to make us think about the many layers of experience beneath them. The namesake composition reflects upon pride and race. How does one untangle patriotic service abroad from discrimination at home?

The BCMA is noted for displaying the offbeat. If you think art museums are deadly serious places, you’ve not seen one of its fantastic Glasstastic shows. The very idea behind these is inspired. Curator Linda Whelihan and others asked kids from K-6 to imagine creatures, draw them, and write a short story to go with them. Twenty professional glass artists then reviewed the 1,200 submissions and brought some of the creatures to life–as it were–in glass sculptures based on the kids’ drawings. 
The works are amazing! They are also whimsical, imaginative, and often laugh-out-loud funny. No artist can possibly top the inspired silliness, innocence, and humor of the kids. Not every submission was sculpted, but the kids’ artwork and tales got a broader treatment. Their stories made me wonder what I did in elementary school as I know I wasn’t this creative: creatures that make us happy by shooting out cup cakes, a smiling tube with superpowers that can be a glue stick if needed, a spaghetti monster more flexible than Mr. Fantastic, a booger-eating critter, and all manner of bug-like, multi-limbed, alien, and monstrous beings. May these kids never lose their love of fantasy. May they forever live in their magical realms.

Rob Weir

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