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Art Notes: White Churches, Closely Observed

  • White on White, Churches of rural New England - photographs by Steve Rosenthal.

    White on White, Churches of rural New England - photographs by Steve Rosenthal.

  • Old First Church, 1805 in Old Bennington, Vermont, by Steve Rosenthal

    Old First Church, 1805 in Old Bennington, Vermont, by Steve Rosenthal

  • White on White, Churches of rural New England - photographs by Steve Rosenthal.
  • Old First Church, 1805 in Old Bennington, Vermont, by Steve Rosenthal

If there’s a quintessential detail of the New England landscape, it’s probably the white clapboard church.

The brick mills, general stores, red barns and various and sundry farmhouses are just as definitive, but white churches, the little ones in the small villages and the grand ones in larger towns, are so ubiquitous sometimes it seems as if there’s one around every corner.

Massachusetts photographer Steve Rosenthal has been investigating these structures since the 1960s and has more than done justice to these ghostly, upright forms. A generous portion of his work is on view at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon in the form of “White on White: Churches of Rural New England,” a touring exhibition sponsored by Historic New England. The black and white prints, taken from scans of large format negatives, are masterworks of light and shadow.

Rosenthal is an architectural photographer, and “White on White,” which follows the 2009 publication of a book by the same title, has a documentary sensibility. The exhibition shows the churches as they are. Rosenthal frames them closely or isolates architectural details. Except in a few instances, the world around the churches is cut out entirely.

This is as it should be, really. The white clapboard church is an unquestioning feature of New England life, which makes it a fairly static subject. As beautiful as the photographs are, I found myself wondering about the buildings they depict and what they say about the region.

It’s fair to ask, at this late date, what these churches mean to us. No longer the center of village life, little used for worship (at least in comparison to when they were built), in some cases falling into disrepair and decay, what are these churches for?

Twice Rosenthal photographed the Stannard-Greensboro Bend Methodist Church, built in 1888 in Stannard, a small town in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. In the first photograph, from 1972, the church looks as if it had been photographed by Ansel Adams. With the camera facing it squarely, the church is small but majestic, wreathed with cirrus clouds and bedded down in soft grasses, a symbol of American moral rectitude.

The second photograph, taken 15 years later, shows the church at a three-quarter angle and from a greater distance. It looks hunkered down under dark clouds. The contrast between the two photographs seemed to me to be the lone piece of editorializing in the show, a restrained statement of how threatened some of these churches are and have been. The text with the second picture notes that residents are still trying to raise money for restoration.

It’s hard to believe that Vermont’s Rockingham Meeting House, completed in 1801, had been abandoned before townspeople sought to restore it in 1906. Rocky Hill Meetinghouse, built in 1785 in Amesbury, Mass., sat abandoned for a century.

The First Congregational Church of East Machias, Maine, a lovely example of Carpenter Gothic, has 20 parishioners, but needs $180,000 in repairs to its steeple.

Another Maine church, this one in Bath, was nearly torn down to make space for “a housing project.” And the 1871 United Methodist Church of Westford, Mass., has had its distinctive details removed “and the entire building encased in vinyl.”

Rosenthal calls the churches “evocative survivors in the New England landscape,” and notes that many churches are threatened because their congregations are so diminished and repairs are so costly. There are no people in these photographs, and in a way that’s fitting; churchgoing isn’t what it used to be.

But it’s also true that New England still values its white churches, far more for their scenic beauty than for their spiritual sanctuary. “White on White” confirms this view.

Also at AVA are “Material Matters,” recent work by White River Junction artist Dave Laro, who specializes in assemblages that call the meanings of objects into question, and “The Walls of the Reliquary,” by recent Upper Valley transplant Wayne Nield. Ruin, age and decay are threads that run through all three of the AVA shows. Nield’s work is a response to the vacated buildings of his native Baltimore, Md.

And in AVA’s second-floor library, works from students in a recent drawing seminar. All shows are on view through June 6.

Of Note

Upper Valley Zen Center, which shares a building with the Main Street Museum in White River Junction, is hosting a weekend exhibition of local art as a fundraiser for the center. The show, which includes work from Matt Brown, Julie Puttgen, Herb Ferris, Jenny Lynn Hall, Stacy Hopkins, Li Shen and Richard Wilson, among many others, is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. An opening reception starts at 7 p.m. Friday and a closing reception is planned for Saturday evening 7 to 9.

Betsy Derrick starts a stint as artist in residence at Long River Studios in Lyme today. She will be working at the gallery today and Friday, and May 15 and 16, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On May 17, Derrick will talk about her favored medium, oil pastels, and will be on hand from 1 to 3 that afternoon.

Openings and Receptions

White River Junction’s Scavenger Gallery celebrates its second birthday at this month’s First Friday with a reception starting at 5:30 for New York artist Judith Vivell. “Never Seen Again,” a suite of Vivell’s paintings of entangled branches, tackle the subject of extinction. Also on display will be new jewelry by Scavenger owner Stacy Hopkins from her collection of work cast from natural history specimens. As usual, Artisanal Cellars will offer wines for tasting.

Vivell, a realist painter devoted to the natural world, also has an exhibition of large-scale portraits of birds in the lobby of the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier, through June 27.

Next door, Zollikofer Gallery in White River Junction’s Hotel Coolidge holds a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. for the “CCS Student Art Show,” work in a variety of media by students at the Center for Cartoon Studies. The show runs through May 19.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio will hold an opening reception for “Collaboration: A Study of Emotion in Color and Form,” prints by Patty Castellini and Victoria Shalvah Herzberg, from 6 to 8 Friday evening. The show consists of monotype and solar plate etchings exploring color and the human figure, prints the artists made working together and on their own. The show will run through June 4.

Art on the River Gallery, a new showcase for small works at 100 River St., in Springfield, Vt., opens “802: Just Vermont,” photographs by Goldie May and John Sinclair, with a reception Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. Call 802-885-6156 for more information.

Randolph’s Chandler Gallery opens its Area Artists Show, featuring work by artists from east-central Vermont, with a reception on Friday evening 5 to 7 p.m. The show runs through June 15.

“2-D 4-D Fiber Art,” an exhibition of work by Hanover fiber artist Shari Boraz, opens Friday, with a reception from 4:30 to 6, at the Roth Center for Jewish Life in Hanover. Boraz dyes and embroiders natural fibers and has been working in textiles since the 1970s. The show continues through June 15.

Last Chance

BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., has extended “Juice Bar,” a colorful winter group show, through Saturday .

Nuance Gallery in Windsor hosts “Luminaries,” a group show, and “Making Visible,” recent work by Valery Woodbury, Michelle Woodbury and Nance Silliman, through Saturday.

Ongoing

The Hood Museum of Art hosts “The Art of Weapons: Selections from the African Collection,” and “In Residence: Contemporary Artists at Dartmouth.”

Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, in Duckworth’s former home and studio on Bean Road in Meriden, hosts “How Colors Sing,” a show of landscape drawings and abstract paintings by Amherst, Mass., artist Lorna Ritz, and “Exhibition XXIII, Simplified Forms in Color,” a show chosen by two of the museum’s new trustees that features simpler forms and figures from Duckworth’s oeuvre.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s spring arts shows include work by painter Georgina Forbes, digital painter Gloria King Merritt and photographer Hunter Paye, as well as participants in the yearly Employee & Volunteer Art Show.

“Girls, Girls, Girls,” recent paintings by Daisy Rockwell, is on view at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction.

Collective — the Art of Craft, a cooperative gallery in Woodstock, is featuring the work of jeweler Joy Raskin, photographer Miranda Hammond and leathersmith Kim Rilleau through the month of June.

Tunbridge Public Library shows paintings by Peter Flint.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com, or 603-727-3219.