New Exhibits in Brattleboro That Make Us Think, Laugh, and Marvel

Alison Wright: Grit and Grace, Women at Work
Postcards to Brattleboro
Steven Kinder: 552,830; Coffee and Conversation
Wesley Fleming: Silvestri, Wild and Untamed
Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, Brattleboro, VT
(Through October 12, 2020)

NOTE: Colors of images are inaccurate. Museum lights cause color shifts and light burns.

Things have eased a bit for art lovers in the Northeast. People from my part of Massachusetts are now allowed to visit Vermont, so I made the 40-mile trip from Northampton to Brattleboro, Vermont. It was the first time since March I’ve left the state, so it felt like a big deal. Plus, I got to visit Brattleboro’s Museum and Art Center (BMAC), a favorite small museum. Forget what you might read on old websites, the exhibits reviewed here are open through October 12–face masks on, of course.

Alison Wright is an award-winning photographer who lives in New York City–when she’s home, which isn’t often as she’s often on the road for National Geographic. Chances are excellent that you’ve gasped at some of her images while leafing through National Geographic. Wright doesn’t just document, she composes. The exhibit at the BMAC is devoted to women at work and it is indeed, as the exhibit title puts it, an effort of grit and grace. Lewis Hine once described himself as a reformer with a camera, a descriptor that fits Ms. Wright.

If I might be iconoclastic, I’d like to start with the last image in the exhibit, which is of a small girl from South Sudan with her back to the camera scribbling numbers on a battered slate. As Westerners wring their hands over the potential “hardships” of taking online classes in the fall, perspective demands we look at this image. South Sudan is the world’s third poorest nation, and this girl is “lucky” in that 7.5 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa never attend school. Look at the slate and then tell me those Chromebooks are a hardship.

Each of the 28 images in this exhibit has an amazing, sometimes heartbreaking, backstory. You will see Liberian shop vendors and chicken farmers, Nicaraguan trash-pickers, Tunisian and Bangladeshi garment workers, Indian brothel workers, Rwandan brickmakers, and more. All are women and, despite low wages and horrendous work conditions, a few manage to emerge triumphant. Here are a few to ponder because of their artistic merits.

Paruti, a mother of four, is from Bangladesh. She is a Hindu Dalit; that is, she’s an “untouchable” from the bottom of the caste system and earns just $25/month as a street sweeper. Notice how Wright uses vivid colors that illumine her subject. The use of posters reminds me of how photographers during the Great Depression posed their subjects in cabins decorated with newspaper ads–promises of prosperity a cruel irony. Wright makes a powerful point, the picture worth any words I could write. 

Wright’s images of Helena, a co-op framer in Tanzania, and Ishimalanga, a fisher in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are lessons in effective composition. Note how Helena’s hoe is held at an angle that draws our attention to the red shawl that contrasts with the green maize, and how it bisects both her body and the flatness of the field and sky. Ishimalanga’s net is being unfurled in ways that give a still picture the illusion of movement. It is also the most colorful part of the image.

The image of Kadatu, a fruit vendor in Sierra Leone, is simply wonderful. It is filled with color, texture, contrast, and sneaky compositional elements. Notice how the fruit tilts slightly to the right and echoes the slat in the wooden shutter. Note also how Kadatu is posed beside gathered stalks that mirror her erect posture, and how we “see” depth, thanks to the left edge of the building.

Postcards to Brattleboro highlights work created by and sent to Stuart Copans, known to envelope artists as “Shmuel” and is curated by another, Chuck Welch, who goes by the handle “Crackerjack Kid.” It is a whimsical delight of an exhibit that echoes one at Holyoke’s PULP GalleryI recently reviewed. It is amazing what creative people can do with a small space. Even more incredible is how they can incorporate shells, wood, bark, poetry, and messages of all sort onto such small “canvases.” Copans allegedly has a collection of over 25,000 objects. The exhibit feels like walking into a gallery from Zap Comix. You can ponder these wonders, or just wallow in amusement. I’d recommend dollops of each.

Can one overdo an important topic? Each night an estimated 552,830 Americans are homeless. This is both a national tragedy and a national travesty. Steven Kinder takes on homeless in Brattleboro, a vest pocket city of just over 12,000. Kinder shows us some of them, but presents them (in acrylic, pencil, and pastel) on large sheets of canvas that hang from the ceiling the way one might enter a sports hall of fame. These–mostly around 8-feet tall–make us look at the homeless as individuals. They posed themselves and most opted to forego surroundings suggestive of squalor. I liked this exhibit, but it’s cramped and some panels are hard to see. I also felt as if subjectivity got lost at times in the oversized panels. Liz LaVorgna also tells of the homeless, but her Coffee and Conversations features photographs and a video installation in which Brattleboro street people tell of how they cope with or have escaped their plight. Those stories are literally told over a cup of java. Maybe it’s just me, but the smaller scale moved me more deeply.

Call me a newbie when it comes to glass art. I confess that I generally glide by it on the way to other things when I’m in a museum. Wesley Fleming has a wall case of work at the BMAC that’s impressive. He has replicated columbine, jack in the pulpit, lady slippers, and other plants in colored glass. I’m coming around, but at present I’m more drawn to those working in non-representational glass. Fleming’s work is delicate and precise, but I’d still rather hold a real flower than one replicated in silica. But Fleming might make me reconsider.

Rob Weir   

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