Art Notes: Exhibition Finds Darkness in the Sublime

  • Peripheral View, a 2008 oil painting by Serban Savu, is part of the Hall Art Foundation exhibition “Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime.” Courtesy image

  • FISCHL_04 0005 Courtesy image

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    "Oil Spills," an installation in porcelain, is among the works on view in the Hall Art Foundation's exhibition "Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime." Courtesy image

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/29/2016 2:04:11 AM
Modified: 9/30/2016 12:28:04 PM

When the 19th century English art critic John Ruskin described his theory of the sublime in art, he was in the midst of vigorously championing the work of his countryman, the painter J.M.W. Turner.

Turner had upended conventions of orderly, pastoral landscapes organized along classical lines of perspective. In the place of such neoclassical subject matter as Greek and Roman history and mythology, or familiar, rural landscapes, Turner painted towering storms, raging conflagrations and torrential deluges with gusts and cascades of color.

He depicted ships and buildings — and, implicitly, the humans in them — being sucked into great vortices of waves and wind, and fire and ice. To his detractors, his paintings were nothing more than “tinted steam.” To his admirers, his work was so visceral it was as if viewers were there.

In Turner’s paintings nature is overwhelming and often terrifying; it’s rarely just pretty.

Far ahead of its time in its use of abstraction, Turner’s work evoked feelings of awe and insignificance, which was in keeping with Ruskin’s dictum that “many things are sublime in the highest degree, which are not in the highest degree beautiful, and vice versa.”

Ruskin’s definition of the sublime was powerfully influential, and made its way not only into the art of the period, but also into the art of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists that came later. There are probably very few artists working today who haven’t grappled with the idea of the sublime at some point in their careers.

It’s also at the root of the exhibition “Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime” at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vt. through Nov. 27.

The show was curated by the photographer (and Dartmouth College graduate) Joel Sternfeld, who’s perhaps best known for his landmark 1987 book American Prospects, which combines both the sublime vistas of the big American landscape with the weird vacuousness of its mass-produced public architecture.

Sternfeld has selected 68 works by 52 artists from both the Hall, and the Hall Foundation, collections, which take their names from collectors Andrew and Christine Hall, who also have endowed large collections at MassMOCA in North Adams, Mass., the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England and Schloss Derneburg Museum in Germany. The Halls are known, in particular, for having amassed holdings of contemporary German art.

Some of the better-known artists whose works are on view in the Reading show include Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei, Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys, Americans Eric Fischl and Neil Jenney, and Germans Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. Only 11 of the artists in the show are women, which is an unfortunate imbalance.

While Turner painted raw, untrammeled nature that could still overwhelm anything humans threw at it, the artists selected by Sternfeld are operating in an environment of increased human population, rapid-fire technological advances and climate change.

Nature still rules, and we are subject to its forces, but the interrelationship between humans and nature is more complex than it was during Turner’s and Ruskin’s lifetimes, and often detrimental to both.

So what, and where, is the sublime in the modern age? The work that Sternfeld chose for the exhibition suggests some places to look, and they’re not always what you would expect.

Industrial landscapes have their own ghostly beauty. Seen at night, an incandescent electric grid lights up the Los Angeles basin in Florian Maier-Aichen’s digital photographic print Untitled (Mount Wilson). Thomas Ruff uses a night vision device, typically used by the military in combat, in his photograph Nacht 10 III to shed an otherworldly, menacing green glow on construction cranes.

Romanian painter Serban Savu, whose work is a real find, paints people who are barely visible in dingy post-industrial landscapes, but even in the midst of such dreariness his handling of paint, and the way he sets his scenes, suggest the nocturnes of James A.M. Whistler.

In Eric Fischl’s massive painting Scenes from Late Paradise: Stupidity, painted from 2006 to 2007, a paunchy middle-aged man trudges on a beach, apparently oblivious to the black clouds on the horizon and the heavy surf pounding the beach.

Christoph Draeger has two works in the show: Hurricane Andrew (2000) and Pan Am 103 (2003). Draeger takes images from two disasters, the first the hurricane that demolished South Florida in 1992, and the second the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which brought the 747 down over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

When you step closer to them you realize that Draeger has turned the images into jigsaw puzzles, so that you can conduct a forensic, piece-by-piece examination of the two scenes. Are these “beautiful” scenes? No. But they elicit pity, horror and awe.

Chinese photographer DoDo Jin Ming seems to quote Turner in her gelatin silver print of an angry sea in Free Element Plate XXIX. Dutch artist Carla Klein contributes one of the show’s standout paintings, Untitled 2009, a nearly cinematic view, in black, white, gray and some blue, of a highway seen through a car window, with rain clouds hovering overhead.

Like other works in the show Klein’s painting suggests that, for humans, nature is something encountered in transit, in passing; it’s not a force with which most of us have to seriously contend, as do the puny creatures battling for survival in Turner’s landscapes.

Sternfeld himself is represented by a 16-minute, essentially comical film, London Bridge, that comes at the end of the exhibition galleries, and is a welcome antidote to much of the heavier, more somber art that precedes it.

In it a gondolier plies his trade at Lake Havasu, Ariz., where an American entrepreneur rebuilt the original London Bridge after he bought it in 1968, had it dismantled and shipped to the U.S. The juxtaposition between the singing, good-natured gondolier, the elegant lines of the bridge, and the crasser elements of American life is, if you’ve seen Sternfeld’s photos, a perennial theme.

Norbert Schwontkowski’s Hohe Tannen III, (2005) is one of the most arresting works in the exhibition. Roughly translated as “tall fir trees,” Hohe Tannen is, unusually, an oil in shades of grey, black and white, a kind of monochromatic study.

It’s a nighttime scene; stars glow in the sky. In the foreground are fir trees, and just above them a strong beam of light cuts through the darkness. On closer look you see that the light is coming from the nose of a plane coming in over the trees.

Is the plane coming in to land? Is it in trouble? It’s ambiguous. There’s a melancholy as we contemplate the humans caught up in whatever drama’s at play here.

Hohe Tannen seems to sum up our uneasy relationship with the sublime.

We crave the thrilling authenticity that the sublime offers, we want to experience that disjunction between the vastness of the sublime and our own insignificance, but we also want it on our terms — packaged in tours, chopped into discrete blocks of time, and shrunk to the size of a smartphone camera.

But Nature always has its own rules of engagement.

The Hall Art Foundation is open through November on weekends and Wednesdays, by appointment. This Friday the foundation is open to the public from 5 to 8 p.m.: no appointment is necessary to tour the galleries. For information and to book a tour go to

Openings and Receptions

Margaret Jacobs, who is exhibition coordinator at the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, will exhibit some of her own sculpture in the show “Lost and Found” at Scavenger Gallery in White River Junction, which is holding an opening reception as part of First Friday. Jacobs works with steel, pewter and such natural materials as deer hair, porcupine quills, and leather. The reception is from 5:30 to 8 p.m.

An exhibition of colorful abstract work by Amy Fortier opens Friday in the Ledyard Gallery in the Howe Library at Hanover. Fortier draws on mandalas, mosaics and kaleidoscopes for inspiration for her whirling patterns. There will be an opening reception on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the library. “Mandalascopes and Faux-zaics” is up through Nov. 29.

As a filmmaker for the United Nations, Paul Klee (his surname rhymes with sea, and he is no relation to the famous painter of the same name) has traveled the world for more than 50 years. A sampling of photographic work from those travels goes on view Monday in the show “Paul Klee: The World Through My Lens” at the Betty Grant Gallery in the Converse Free Library in Lyme. There will be an opening reception on Wednesday, Oct. 12, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The show continues through Dec. 23.

Matthew Mazzota, a conceptual artist who is a lecturer in art, culture and technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be in Haverhill this Sunday, holding an “Outdoor Living Room” event at the Hatchland Farm Store in North Haverhill from 2 to 3:30 p.m. At 7 p.m. Mazzota will talk about his art and ideas at Court Street Arts. Then on Monday, he will be at Shaw’s Market in Woodsville from 1:30 to 3 p.m. For information go to

The Hanover League Fine Craft Gallery at 13 Lebanon St., in Hanover has opened its autumn exhibition, which features new work by ceramicists Robin Ascher and David Ernster, textile artists Rachel Kahn and Kathleen Litchfield, and photographer Rosamond Orford.


Arabella, Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

ArtisTree, Pomfret. “Local Color,” an exhibition of work by area artists on the theme of fall, continues through Oct. 30.

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. Five artists show their work in the main galleries. Gina Adams exhibits “Its Honor is Here Pledged;” Lebanon artist Paulette Werger shows metal work in “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” and gives a gallery talk this evening at 6; “Nature Revisited” combines the works of Gar Waterman, from Connecticut, and Rob Kesseler, an English artist: both men will speak on Oct. 6 at 6 p.m. Finally, Josh Yunger exhibits “ABC,” a show about his relationship with AVA Gallery, in the Johnson Sisters Library on the second floor. All exhibits run through Oct. 12.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. “Painting in the Neighborhood,” with work by Celia Reisman and Peter Fried, is open through Saturday. In the Projects Gallery the paintings of Nancy H. Taplin are on view through Oct. 22.

Cider Hill Art Gallery and Gardens, Windsor. Gary Milek exhibits his work in the gallery.

Aidron Duckworth Museum, Meriden. Sculpture, drawings and prints by Saxtons River, Vt., artist Michele Ratte are on view, as is “Developing Dimension,” works by Aidron Duckworth. The sculpture of Terry Lund is on the grounds. All exhibits close Oct. 30, when the museum closes for the season.

Hood Downtown, Hanover. The photographs of Laetitia Soulier are on view in the exhibition “The Fractal Architectures” through Dec. 11.

Hopkins Center, Hanover. The sculpture and paintings of artist-in-residence Diana Al-Hadid are on view in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery through Nov. 13. “Speak! Listen! CT! A Kaleidoscope of Architectural Elements for Public Space,” with work by Zenovia Toloudi of Studio Z, and students, is in the Strauss Gallery, also through Nov. 13.

Library Arts Center, Newport. “Voices & Visions: Empowerment Through Art,” an exhibition addressing sexual and domestic violence continues through Oct. 28.

Long River Galleries, Lyme. “Following the Silk Road: From India to New England,” works by textile artist Ann Peck, are up through Nov. 6.

Main Street Museum, White River Junction. The museum’s exhibition of memorabilia associated with the Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s continues through Oct. 28.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. An exhibition of landscapes and cityscapes by Lyme painter and illustrator Meg McLean ends Friday.

Norwich Public Library. “Mixed Bag,” an exhibition of abstract and realist work by Lynda Knisley and Linda Reeves Potter runs through Oct. 28.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. Sue Lenfest shows works related to nature and agriculture through Oct. 22.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. Multimedia artist Candice Ivy exhibits her work in the exhibition “Within Above Below the Skin,” on view in the Picture Gallery through Oct. 31.

SculptureFest, Woodstock. The annual celebration of three-dimensional art continues through foliage season. A new exhibition, “Grounding,” a show of site-specific work curated by sculptors Jay Mead and Edyth Wright, is now on view at the King Farm, while the Prosper Road site also shows new work. For more information, go to

Tunbridge Public Library. “Facial Recognition,” a show by painter Marianne McCann continues until Nov. 4.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. A show of works by Carol Lippman, an artist from West Newbury, Vt., ends Friday.

White River Gallery at BALE, South Royalton. Works by Brenda Garand are on view through Dec. 15.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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