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Art Notes: What Are You Looking At?

Scratch the Surface, by Elena Herzog, is part of an exhibit at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish.

Scratch the Surface, by Elena Herzog, is part of an exhibit at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish.

When I went to look at Elana Herzog’s sculptural assemblages at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, most of the other visitors who found their way to the park’s small Picture Gallery barely ducked their heads in the door before turning right around again.

I couldn’t blame them. The show, titled “Re Construction,” doesn’t give potential viewers much to go on. Her works, at least the recent ones that take up the gallery’s two small rooms, consist of pieces of reclaimed wood, cut into shapes on a bandsaw and stacked or covered with fabric and staples, or both.

One of the two rooms is given over entirely to a large assemblage on the floor. Scratch the Surface consists of flat pieces of what look like old countertops, including some coated with Formica, to which Herzog has stapled some pink and white fabric. In places the fabric is shredded and piled like little clouds. At the foot of the installation is a small pile of scraps of aqua and gray fabric, bits of which are also scattered over part of the assemblage like a debris field. At the opposite end is a small tower of cut wood scraps, more angular than the squarish ones lying on floor.

The primary question Scratch the Surface asks of us is “what are you looking at?” Is it a landscape, laid out on the floor, or does it have a more unitary sort of thinghood? Standing with my back to the wall that faces the gallery’s windows — which look out on Saint-Gaudens’ extraordinary bust of Abraham Lincoln, about which more shortly — the piece began to look to me like a rather awkward bird, which was itself doing the scratching.

In the room across the hall were several smaller works. Of these, the most captivating was Tableau, which consisted of two standing sculptures (stacks of wood on waist-high pedestals), and a piece mounted on the wall. The wall-mounted bit has some depth. Fabric stapled around the edges traces a pattern resembling at once a stylized human head and a truncated cartoon speech bubble. Inside that border, the pattern of the wood grain ripples downward, like the progress of a thought. A gap in the fabric appears where the wood tucks inward to form an open mouth. A thought spoken, perhaps.

And on the wall facing Scratching the Surface were three more conventionally modern untitled collages of paper and cloth. One of them constrasted strips of fiery orange paper and gray plaid cloth, a mix of flame and ash.

I had fun puzzling over Herzog’s work, but it is largely meaningless and inert, a sort of professional mess whipped up in an art school blender. Ultimately, I didn’t know whether to embrace its woundedness or pile it on the lawn and set it ablaze.

What to do when art raises a barbarous impulse? This is part of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist’s agenda. Herzog, the 2013 Saint-Gaudens fellow, an award for young sculptors, notes in a recent artist’s statement that the materials she uses “challenge conventions of taste and beauty.” To that I would say that it isn’t the materials, but how Herzog uses them that challenges those conventions. Further, there is no indictment of the culture that breeds this castoff material, no outrage or any other feeling in “Re Construction,” just a cool detachment, a sort of weariness.

In the hour or so I spent with Herzog’s work, maybe six or eight people came into the Picture Gallery. Of those, only one made a point of walking around the gallery and looking at everything. Most took only seconds to decide that the exhibition had nothing to offer them.

And with the Lincoln sculpture, or the monument to Admiral Farragut, or any of the other Saint-Gaudens works, why linger where an artist hasn’t striven to find meaning that connects with viewers? It occurred to me that the Saint-Gaudens site is engaged in a lengthy project of its own, one that shows how far art, and sculpture in particular, has circled away from the public, away from subjects that the public esteems.

We are in a funny place with art, and have been for some time. We’re not supposed to talk about whether some art is objectively better than other art, or whether art is good or bad. Such value judgments are considered unsophisticated unless they are surrounded by a cloud of words that indicate advanced understanding.

Herzog’s show is the latest sign of many I’ve encountered that many artists are not interested in connecting with people. The contrast with the work of Saint-Gaudens is extreme. This comparison might seem unfair, but where Herzog arranges wreckage on the floor, Saint-Gaudens reached out to find subjects with an intrinsic nobility and to depict them with a clarity and harmony that draw the eye, the mind, the heart to look and understand and feel.

I can see where one reading of Scratch the Surface is hopeful, that a bird-like figure can be reconstructed ruins. But there’s no uplift there, and until there is, the people will stay away. Burning the piles of wood at least would provide some warmth.

“Re Constructions: Sculpture and Works on Paper” by Elana Herzog, a New York-based sculpture and installation artist who is the 2013 Saint-Gaudens Fellow. The show, in the park’s Picture Gallery, is on view through July 14, and a closing reception is planned for July 13, 4:30 to 6 p.m., which will include a talk by Herzog at 5.

Of Note

The new Claremont Arts Market starts June 6 and will run every Thursday afternoon, 4 to 7, through Oct. 3 as a curated market for fine art and crafts in Broad Street Park. For more information, go to claremontartsmarket.com, or call 603-229-2157.

Openings and Receptions

The restoration of late 19th- and early 20th-century painted theater curtains has been one of the longest running art stories in the Twin States. Chris Hadsel started cleaning and repairing these muslin theater curtains, which typically hung in front of stages in town halls and grange halls, more than a decade ago. The curtains generally depict local landscapes, but many feature boxy advertisements that provide a record of a town’s commercial history.

Since conservation work began in 2002, Hadsel and her crew have documented and repaired 185 curtains around Vermont, most of which are now on display. New Hampshire and Maine are estimated to have 140 curtains each, and the conservation effort has expanded into those states and upstate New York, as well.

The location of the Chandler’s curtain is unknown and it is feared lost, but a curtain from East Braintree was found in storage at the Chandler and was recently restored and installed in the East Braintree Church.

Randolph’s Chandler Gallery opens “Suspended Worlds,” an exhibition of photographs of some of the restored Vermont curtains with a reception on Sunday evening from 5 to 7. At 6, Hadsel will present a slide show about the history of the curtains and their restoration.

∎ ArtisTree Gallery in Woodstock marks the centennial of painter Bill James with an exhibition opening tomorrow evening, 6 to 8. James, grandson of the philosopher William James, worked as a painter in Woodstock over 50 years ago. The show is on view through June 15.

∎ Hanover’s Howe Library opens its annual “55+ Art Show” on Saturday with a reception, 2 to 3:30 p.m.

Last Chance

Newport’s Library Arts Center hosts its annual Juried Regional Exhibition. Jurors Camellia Sousa of Sharon Arts Center in Peterborough, N.H., and Amanda McGowan Lacasse of McGowan Fine Art in Concord chose roughly half of the 125 works submitted. They also selected seven artists who will be invited to show a larger body of work at the LAC next February. They are: Rosemary Conroy, Weare, N.H.; Shawna Gibbs, Claremont; Christine Hawkins, Claremont; Evan Clayton Horback, Sunapee; Bea Jillette, Goshen, N.H.; Hal Shukovsky, Sunapee; and Rick Stockwell, Sutton, N.H. The show continues through today.

“Designed and Printed at the Stinehour Press,” a concise history of the celebrated Vermont printing company, is on view through May 31 in the main hall of Dartmouth College’s Baker Library. On April 11, the library honored Roderick “Rocky” Stinehour, who founded the press after graduating from Dartmouth in 1950.

∎ Two Rivers Printmaking Studio exhibits monoprints by Elinor Randall that celebrate the life and work of Molly Keane, a 20th-century Anglo-Irish playwright and novelist.

∎ “Picture Show: As Seen Through My Eyes,” a solo show by Tunbridge photographer Fred Carty, is on view at Tunbridge Public Library through tomorrow.

∎ “My Favorite Places,” mixed media on canvas by Christine Hauck, is on view at West Lebanon’s Kilton Public Library through Saturday.

∎ “How People Make Things,” an exhibition that looks at how all sorts of objects are made, is on view at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich through Sunday. Admission to the Montshire is $12 for adults, $10 for children ages 2 to 17.

Ongoing

The Great Hall, an art gallery in the former Fellows Gear Shaper building in Springfield, Vt., hosts “Changing Gears,” a solo exhibition of recent large-scale digital paintings by Gloria King Merritt.

∎ Zollikofer Gallery at the Hotel Coolidge shows “Black and White River,” photographs of White River Junction by Swanton, Vt., photographer Clair Dunn.

∎ Norwich Public Library hosts “Landscapes & Wildlife,” works in watercolor, oils, gouache, scratch board, colored pencil, and pen and ink by Fran Greenwood.

∎ The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, Hanover Gallery is showing the work of wildlife photographer Andrew Thompson, through June.

∎ The Monshire Museum of Science hosts, “Playing with Time,” a traveling exhibition that allow viewers to seemingly change the speed of time, to perceive such hidden phenomena as the flapping of a hummingbird’s wings or the expansion of the universe.

∎ AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon exhibits drawings by C. Stuart White Jr., a co-founder of Banwell Architects and the lead architect for the 2007 renovation of AVA’s building at 11 Bank St., the former H.W. Carter and Sons clothing factory. Also at AVA is a “Drawing Invitational” show, featuring works by 15 longtime AVA artists, among them Gerald Auten, Penelope Bennett, Mary Mead and Charles Shurcliff, and “Drawn Together: 40 Hours — 40 Years,” drawings from a nine-month, in-depth drawing class.

∎ Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art hosts “Word and Image in Contemporary Art,” a show curated in collaboration with 24 senior studio art majors that includes Ed Ruscha’s great 1963 painting Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas; “The Women of Shin Hanga: The Judith and Joseph Barker Collection of Japanese Prints”; and “Evolving Perspectives: Highlights from the African Art Collection at the Hood Museum of Art.”

Scavenger Gallery in White River Junction hosts “Oceana,” panels by Jenny Lynn Hall and also shows woodware by Ria Blaas and jewelry by gallery owner Stacy Hopkins.

The Aidron Duckworth Art Museum in Meriden has opened its 11th season with an exhibition of sculptures by Paul Bowen, who works with found materials, and “Forms in Space,” the museum’s 21st exhibition of its namesake artist. “Forms in Space” consists of paintings from a 1970 exhibition in South Africa, when Duckworth was head of the Department of Fine Art at the University of Natal.

∎ “Generous Spirits,” pottery, basketry and furniture by Walt Hazelton and driftwood-found-object sculpture by Bruce Marshall, are on view at Nuance Gallery in Windsor.

∎ BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., hosts “Masterworks,” which features both sculpture and prints by the late Hugh Townley as well as works from his collection, which includes pieces by Eugene Atget, Harry Callahan, Salvador Dali, Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Aaron Siskind, H.C. Westermann and Ossip Zadkine.

∎ Spring art exhibitions at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center include oil paintings by Deborah Frankel Reese and Gillian Tyler and watercolors by Marlene Kramer and Lynn Hoeft.

Art Notes appears in the “Valley News” on Thursday. Send email to artnotes@vnews.com.

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Letter: Time to Leave the 19th Century

Monday, June 10, 2013

To the Editor: Alex Hanson’s May 30 Art Notes (“What Are You Looking At?”) was a tantrum, not a review. I think Hanson is confused and uncertain about what he’s looking at when he looks at contemporary art. There actually exist steps and standard guiding principles for critiquing art, but Hanson doesn’t employ them, much to the detriment of his …