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Art Notes: Hunting and Fishing Show Has Hits and Misses

  • Bingham_Watching the Cargo by Night.jpg



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2017

Anyone who has lived in rural, northern New England or New York will recognize the moody autumnal landscape in A Huntsman and Dogs, Winslow Homer’s 1891 painting that is now on view at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont as part of the exhibition “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art.”

A young man, accompanied by two hunting dogs, heads down a mountain in the Adirondacks, deer skin slung over one shoulder, hunting rifle in left hand and deer’s antlers in his right. He leans his left leg on the stump of a logged tree, maybe to rearrange the weight of pelt and antlers, maybe to survey the distance he has still to travel.

His expression is serious and resolved, although his dogs leap and bay in excitement. The trees are shot through with browns, oranges, dark greens and rusts. The skies are changeable and gray, a harbinger of winter. This day man has bested nature; the next time it might be the other way around.

You could be easily mesmerized by the Homer: it’s the weightiest painting in the exhibition, although Thomas Eakins’ 1874 landscape Pushing for Rail, a depiction of men hunting marsh birds, gives it a run for its money.

As is the case in many of Homer’s works, an interior tension animates the scene. His subjects, whether human or animal, have arrived at a moment of physical and psychological reckoning.

The Homer, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, happens to be the first painting you see when you enter the exhibition, which was organized by the Shelburne, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., and the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb.

The exhibition surveys still-life paintings, as well as the genre and historical scenes that show, from the white point of view, the European and American settlement of the West and the conflicts that came with it. N.C. Wyeth, Albert Bierstadt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows and Marsden Hartley are among the artists featured.

Despite this list of luminaries, the show is an odd mix of great, indifferent and mediocre.

In the first camp are Homer, Eakins and the stirring 1868 Martin Johnson Heade painting Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, with white sails set against a lowering black sky.

In the last is the turgid The Favorite Falcon by Thomas Hovenden, in which a preening courtier shows off a falcon to a woman. I have no idea why it was included. It speaks only glancingly to the theme of hunting and fishing; and it doesn’t illuminate our understanding of a shifting American frontier, which is one of the undercurrents of the exhibition.

Many of the other paintings fall in-between: works lumped together, not always persuasively, under one theme.

Some of the works have informative wall labels, but others are minimal to the point of uselessness.

The still life The Buffalo Head, Relics of the Past, a pre-1910 painting by Astley D.M. Cooper shows a mounted bison head surrounded by photographs of Buffalo Bill Cody and Sioux leaders Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Gall.

The label omits that the three Sioux not only defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn, but also later became part of Cody’s popular Wild West show. Those details might change our understanding of what we’re looking at. At the least, they would add important information.

Women don’t appear much, although I didn’t really expect them to: a Celtic goddess, a Saint-Gaudens Diana, a woman dancing attendance on a man returned from the hunt.

The notable exception is William Sidney Mount’s 1845 Eel Spearing at Setauket, in which an African-American woman standing at the prow of a shallow skiff aims a spear at the water while a young white boy seated behind her steadies an oar.

Commissioned by an affluent Long Island landowner, the painting, completed 15 years before the Civil War, was not without controversy. A painting of a woman in command would have been considered provocative by many: For the woman to be African-American was even more charged in an era when slavery was the dominant issue.

The quiet naturalness of the scene, with white and black working together, wasn’t something Americans saw everyday in genre paintings. (Eakins echoes Mount’s scene in Pulling for Rail, in which both whites and blacks are out in skiffs in the New Jersey marshes.)

In the other paintings in the exhibition, though, nature is the place where men go to get away from women, to engage in pursuits that, at least in the 19th century, were thought of as the male preserve. This is a resolutely masculine view of nature and the outdoors, where conflict between man and nature, or between men, is often, literally, tooth and claw.

In Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s 1856 genre painting A Tight Fix — Bear Hunting, Early Winter [The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix], a young bearded hunter, sitting on the ground directly opposite a black bear, stares in consternation as the bear growls and raises its paws; in his right hand the hunter holds a hunting knife. There are traces of blood on the ground. Neither has the advantage. Survival of the fittest, three years before the publication Darwin’s Origin of Species.

It makes sense that the show, which takes us from the mid-19th century through the Depression era, is going to areas of the country strongly associated with such outdoor pursuits as fishing and hunting. Would people in Brooklyn or Chicago rush out to see paintings of buffalo and bear hunters, lobstermen and shooting parties?

On the other hand, the tour venue seems to unwittingly emphasize the current division in this country between rural and urban, as if the twain will rarely meet, not even in the kind of art they see.

Or maybe some of the paintings are too hokey for a contemporary urban audience. The majority of the paintings wear too heavily the mantle of the era in which they were made; they don’t transcend it. They are of the academy, but can’t go beyond it.

But, that doesn’t mean they’re without value. Genre paintings can tell us as much about a culture and society as do acknowledged masterpieces, but people aren’t always as interested in taking stock of them.

If I have one unexpected favorite, it’s George Caleb Bingham’s 1854 Watching the Cargo by Night. Bingham’s subject was the Missouri and the men who plied their trade in flatboats up and down the river. His best-known painting may be Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which a father and son drift placidly downstream.

In Watching the Cargo by Night Bingham places three men around a fire, while a fourth in the near distance presumably keeps an eye on their cargo-laden boat. The only sources of light in the black sky are the fire and the moon, partially hidden by a cloud.

While some of the exhibition’s narrative paintings are stagey, Bingham’s has the feel of life lived outside the frame. We can’t really see the river, but we know it’s there, and we sense the camaraderie of the men around the fire, even as one man, with his back to us, keeps guard. Time and the river flow on.

“Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art” runs through Aug. 27 at the Shelburne Museum of Art in Shelburne, Vt. For more information go to shelburnemuseum.org or call 802-985-3346.

Ongoing

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. New work in Kira’s Garden, an outdoor sculpture installation that honors the late Kira Fournier, is on view through Aug. 23 on the east side of the Carter-Kelsey building. Featured Upper Valley artists include: Scott Gordon of Norwich, Lela Jaacks of Brownsville, Michael Kraatz and Susan Russell of Canaan, John Kemp Lee of White River Junction, John Matusz of Waitsfield, Vt., and Abraham Oort of Hartland.

Also on view at AVA, through Sept. 23, is the biennial Juried Summer exhibition, featuring 103 works selected by Hood Museum of Art director John Stomberg.

The following artists were awarded prizes for their work: Bruce Blanchette, of Walpole, N.H., for the mixed-media piece Space Time Artifact; Helen Shulman, of Quechee, for the oil painting Three Part Harmony; and Susan Wilson, of Putney, Vt., for the sculpture Vigil. Shawna Gibbs, of Claremont, won the Cornelia M. Rahmelow Photography Prize for the photograph Movie Night.

The Juried Summer Exhibition is on view through Sept. 23.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. “Walk Into My Heart,” a multi-media installation by Deborah Bohnert, continues through Aug. 5. The exhibition blends such mediums as sculpture, paintings, sketches and found objects. BigTown also exhibits work by Hugh Townley, the late sculptor and printmaker, through Sept. 10.

Chandler Gallery, Randolph. “Scale: Models to Monuments” explores the history and impact of public art through sculpture and photography. Randolph sculptor Jim Sardonis curated the exhibit. On view through Sept. 2.

Chelsea Public Library. “Moving Paint, Moving Bodies,” an exhibit of paintings by the Chelsea artist and dancer Hannah Dennison, is up through August.

Center for the Arts, Lake Sunapee. The CFA sponsors three exhibitions throughout the Lake Sunapee region. An exhibition of landscape photography by James Mudie and photographs of flowers by Richard Gulezian is on view in the Lake Sunapee Bank’s micro gallery. Mary Beth Westward exhibits landscapes at Whipple Hall in New London. The second annual Center for the Arts exhibition, featuring oil, watercolor and acrylic paintings, as well as drawings and mixed media, is on view at the New London Inn. All three shows end Saturday.

Cider Hill Art Gallery, Windsor. The gallery and garden center exhibits sculpture, painting and environmental installations by Steven Proctor, Herb Ferris, Gary Haven Smith, the Mythmakers and Gary Milek.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. Members of the artists’ group Odankansis show their work in the exhibition “Summer Time in Lyme.” Through Sept. 30.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. The exhibition “The Faces of Mental Illness and Healing,” runs through September. Also on view at the medical center through September are the works of seven New England artists: Mark Bolton, Carol Keiser, Alison Palizzolo, Richard Perry, Sheryl Trainor and Robin Weisburger.

Hall Art Foundation, Reading, Vt. Three shows are currently on view: “Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros,” a show of more than 80 paintings on the subject of romantic and sexual love; “Ready. Fire! Aim,” a collaboration between the foundation and Burlington City Arts; and a solo show by David Shrigley. All run through Nov. 26.

Hartland Library. Photographs by Marv Klassen-Landis and his son Pete K. Landis are on view through early September.

Hood Downtown, Hanover. “The Everyday Fantastic,” work by Missouri photographer Julie Blackmon, is on view through Aug. 27.

Howe Library, Hanover. The work of Stephanie Gordon, who teaches art at Hanover High School, is featured in the exhibition “80 Degrees: Encaustic Paintings.” The show ends Wednesday. (STET)

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. Susan Pearson, a pastel artist from Canaan, exhibits her work during regular library hours through Sept. 30.

Library Arts Center, Newport. Carmela Azzaro, Christine R. Hawkins, Ali Keller, Susan Lawrence, Laura Morrison, Richard Stockwell, Patricia Sweet-MacDonald and Tara Van Meter show their work in the annual “Selections” exhibition, which features work from artists chosen from the 2016 Regional Juried show. The show ends Friday.

Main Street Museum, White River Junction. “Lost & Found,” an exhibition of paintings by Tunbridge artist Bunny Harvey, is on view until early September.

Norman Williams Public Library, Woodstock. The photos of Joanna Garbisch, who helped develop early color Polaroids in the 1960s, are on view through Aug. 14.

Norwich Public Library. An exhibition of work by Claremont artists (and husband and wife) Sue Lawrence and Andrew Williams titled “Together, Captured Moments in Realism” closes Aug. 26.

Osher at Dartmouth, Hanover. “The Outsiders,” a show of work by Anne Hartmann, Judith Pettingell, and Ann Semprebon, runs through Aug. 24.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. Lindsey Cole, a seventh-generation Vermonter and South Royalton native with a master’s degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School, exhibits her paintings, drawings and photographs. There will be a public reception Saturday at 1 p.m. The exhibition runs through Sept. 29.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. A show of Nancy Azara’s sculpture, “Passage of the Ghost Ship: Trees and Vines,” continues through Sept. 10.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. Black-and-white woodcuts, and handmade wooden serving spoons made by Norwich farmer, writer and artist Suzanne Lupien, are on view, in addition to the jewelry of Stacy Hopkins.

SculptureFest, Woodstock. The annual sculpture exhibition at 304 Prosper Road features work by Judith Wrend and Joseph Chirchirillo, with Murray Dewart as a special guest artist. Other sculptors showing new work are: Brooks Baird, Charlet Davenport, Herb Ferris, Liz Fletcher, Roger Goldenberg, Bruce Hathaway, John Hikory, Lela Keen Jaacks, Justin Kenney, Robert Markey, Jay Mead, Leah Woods and Zoe Frie.

Tunbridge Public Library. The group show “Connecting Fibers” features fiber art by Susan Cain, Judy Cayer, Louise Clark, Carrie Cooker, Christina Duffy, Betty LaWhite, Karyn Lord, Caitlyn Macglaflin, Katrina Mojzesz, Fern Strong and Belinda Whipple Worth. Through Aug. 26.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. Elizabeth Mayor, one of the founders of AVA Gallery and Art Center and a well-known printmaker, shows work. The show ends Monday. (STET)

White River Gallery at BALE, South Royalton. A large-scale painting exhibition by Patrick Dunfey, a Hartford-based painter and photographer, is on view through Sept. 30. An opening reception and artist talk is on Aug. 5 from 4 to 6 p.m.

Zollikofer Gallery, White River Junction. “Up Close in White River Junction,” a tribute by members of the White River Junction chapter of the Vermont Watercolor Society to the wealth of historic architecture in town, is up through August. There will be a reception from 5 to 7 p.m at the Coolidge on First Friday, Aug. 4.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.