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   


Eliza Gilkyson and 2020: July 2020 Album of the Month

Eliza Gilkyson
Red House Records

My worst-kept secret is that pretty songs open my tear ducts. (Where can a guy hide who needs a tissue every time he hears Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”) Eliza Gilkyson’s latest made me reach for a Kleenex a half dozen times.

It is titled 2020 and it’s what we all need to make it through our current travails. Gilkyson, who will be 70 next month, still sings like a chosen one. Maybe that’s because she sings from the heart. Her previous album, 2018’s Secularia, was filled with Gaia-based spiritual observations, and you’ll hear echoes of those sentiments on 2020. The new album opens with “Promises to Keep,” which unfolds to Bukka Allen’s rolling organ, then cuts to Eliza’s spare guitar. The melody and vocal are gorgeous, even though her wink and nod to Robert Frost segues to pointed observations that no one knows what it will come down to… we’re on fire. A few bars later, she captures quarantine anxieties with: I’ve been counting on the angel choir/to put some wings on my feet/…and get me out on the street. The song is a weepy, yet is filled with hope. Not much more to say except, damn, what a great song!

She could have quit there, but more wonders pour forth. “Peace in Our Hearts” has a folk blues vibe with the song’s title providing an all-join-in repeating line. Then comes “My Heart Aches,” and so will yours when you hear it. She chronicles the past 50 years and prevails upon hopeful past slogans—such as we shall overcome, give peace a chance, hammer out justice—to highlight things left undone. When she laments for the children of tomorrow and the world they have to fix… my heart aches, like Tom Dooley I wanted to hang down my head and cry. It is well and proper that later on, Gilkyson does a tender rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The album’s other cover is a rather ominous-sounding take of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” How sad that that song remains relevant.

Gilkyson’s overtly political original song is “Beach Haven,” which is based on a 1952 letter Woody Guthrie sent to his Brooklyn landlord decrying the racial barriers that kept black veterans from living in his apartment complex. That landlord was Fred Trump and some 20 years later his seed (or should I say seedy?) Donald was accused of redlining to keep his own projects lily white. Gilkyson, though, channels her anger into a call for coming together. After all, there’s just so much outrage one can ingest and remain human. Gilkyson’s fragile “One More Day” is a love letter to life, as is “Beautiful World of Mine,” which calls us to be stewards of nature. Warren Hood’s fiddle adds grace to the latter, which is basically a country two-step.
Though they are not paired on the album, I like to think of “Sooner or Later” and “We Are Not Alone” as companions. The first is a soulful, bluesy boot-in-the-butt warning to the powers that be: Sooner or later it’s a natural fact/Gonna rise up, gonna take it all back. Mike Hardwick cauterizes that defiance with searing electric guitar. Fittingly, Gilkyson leaves us with a call to action that’s almost a prayer. “We Are Not Alone” opens quietly and builds to a chorus enhanced by WEWIM—a group to encourage female singers that she cofounded—and together they take us out anthem-style by repeating the song title like a giant group hug.

I adored everything about this album, one of the very best from an artist I have admired for decades. There’s an expression from my Pennsylvania childhood that sums up Eliza Gilkyson; she’s “just good people.”

Rob Weir 


The Dreamers Seems Like an NC-17 Version of Now

The Dreamers (2004)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Fox Searchlight, 118 minutes, NC-17 (graphic sexuality, disturbing inferences)
(English and French with subtitles)

The French are as obsessed with the events of May 1968 as Americans are with the 1968 Chicago police riots or Kent State. History might hold lessons for contemporary movements such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter, especially the dangers of pushing the Establishment beyond the breaking point.

In 1968, student protests, Communist Party rallies, and wildcat strikes set French against French in ways not seen since the 1871 Paris Commune. These almost toppled the Fifth Republic. The Dreamers opens with a massive protest outside the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, whose co-founder Henri Langlois has been dismissed for refusing a government directive. For serious film scholars–the sort who religiously read Cahiers du Cinéma–this was a slap at French culture, intellectualism, and freedom. The journal and Cinémathèque–a theater, archive, and film preservation center–gave credence to auteur theory, nurtured French New Wave directors, and made millions understand there is a world of difference between a movie and a film. It’s hardly surprising that many New Wave directors made films about May 1968: Truffault (Stolen Kisses, 1968), Godard (Tout va Bien, 1972), Chabrol (Nada, 1974), Malle (May Fools, 1990). Bernardo Bertolucci (1941-2018) was Italian, but he was definitely an auteur and made numerous films in France, which is where movies were born, by the way.

You don’t need to know all of this to appreciate The Dreamers, but it helps. The Cinémathèque protest is where our three principals meet: Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American studying in Paris; and Théo (Louis Garrel) and his twin sister Isabelle (Eva Green in her first film), two Parisian students obsessed with cinema and each other. The twins invite Matthew into their home, where he has an intellectual discussion with their parents, the 18-year-old variety that sounds deeper than it really is. When mom and dad leave for a month in the country, Matthew moves in.

If graphic sexuality on the screen makes you squirm, you probably ought to steer clear of this film. Bertolucci is also the director who gave us Last Tango in Paris (1972) and La Luna (1979), both of which delved into taboo sexual expressiveness. The Dreamers involves steamy scenes involving masturbation, a deflowering, and leaves-nothing-to-the-imagination copulation. Matthew discovers Théo and Isabelle sleeping naked in the same bed, which they dismiss as the closeness of “Siamese twins” who are joined by thought. As it turns out in the film, Théo and Isabelle are not incestuous lovers, so I suppose one could look at this as commentary on a countercultural impulse to exorcise “hang ups.” For what it’s worth, Bertolucci pulled a few punches from The Holy Innocents, the Gilbert Adair novel upon which the film script (from Adair) was based. I’ve not read it, but reviews mention incest and bisexual three-ways.

Matthew and his new French friends have lots of playful fun at first. They argue over films and music–Chaplin or Keaton? Hendrix or Clapton? They also act out scenes from auteur films–including a race through the Louvre à la Godard’s Bande à part–live like bohemians, smoke, and raid the family wine supply. Always, though, there is a revolution taking place on the streets and Théo feels drawn to it, a source of political tension with Matthew who questions the effectiveness of destruction. Tension increases when the three play the game of Consequences in which the loser must do as the person posing the question commands. Isabelle has secretly witnessed her brother pleasure himself and when Théo loses, he must do so in front of her and Matthew. When she loses, Théo orders her to have sex with Matthew. As they say, the cat is out of the bag and soon Matthew and Isabelle are lovers. Théo is a bit jealous (though he has a girlfriend) and politics begin to loom larger. There is also obvious homoerotic tension between Théo and Matthew, but because it goes no further, it seems all the more erotic.

So, is The Dreamers little more than a sex film in an apartment on a noisy street? I think not. Unlike movies, which seek only to entertain, auteur films often delve into the psyche of characters and seek to make the audience think. The Dreamers is also a film about what one says versus what one will do. Inside the apartment, there is tension between talk of liberation and acting liberated; street protests evoke the old split between anarchists of the word and those of the deed. Would you hurl a Molotov cocktail if you believed it would help topple oppression? Bertolucci layered all of this with lots of period music–including songs from The Doors, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, and Dylan–and bathes it in the gorgeous cinematography of Fabio Cianchetti.

Auteurs frequently leave lots of things unanswered. May 1968 did not end well. Unions made side deals and street violence begat tear gas and clubs. Did students go too far? Is that why the Gaullists retained power in France and why the U.S. ended up with Nixon? Was liberation too shallow to stand up to challenge? (Good questions for today!) Indeed, is the sex in The Dreamers sweet or voyeuristic? But maybe Bertolucci tipped his hand. The ending song is from Edith Piaf, “Non, Je ne regrette rien” (No, I regret nothing.)

This film is 16 years old, but somehow feels like a newsflash.

Rob Weir