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Art Notes: Colorlessness and Its Complications

  • "Ink Painting #18," by Mary Jane Morse, is among the works on display in "Black & White," an exhibition at the Library Arts Center in Newport, N.H. (Courtesy Library Arts Center)

  • "Patriotic," a photograph by Christine Almstrom, is among the works on display in "Black & White," at the Library Arts Center in Newport, N.H. (Courtesy Library Arts Center)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2018

To say “I don’t see color” is problematic in a number of ways, but saying it in the context of “Black & White,” currently on view at the Library Arts Center in Newport, N.H., isn’t one of them. The juried and invitational exhibition, which features hundreds of works by more than 80 artists from around New England, negates the notion that monochromatic art is limited in what it can do, and instead posits that these “limitations” can be expansive.

The wide gamut of visual art forms in the show only supports this: Painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, photography, jewelry, collage and mixed-media, fiber arts and mosaic are all represented.

The artwork is at its most powerful when it’s not simply a rendering in black-and-white, but when the monochrome is essential to the work — when it radically alters what the piece might express were it in color. This is the case in a photograph whose plaque titles it Patriotic, though I wondered if it might actually be, as Croydon artist Christine Almstrom wrote in the lower left-hand corner of the image, “Patriotic.” In the photo, an American flag, ostensibly made of horizontal strips of wood that are not quite touching and not quite aligned, have been attached to the side of a barn or shed-like structure.

The flag is stripped, as in it’s literally made of strips, but it’s also been stripped of the colors that are half the point of the thing, that lend it that American pomp. Even the red is bleached out, barely darker than the white. This irony seems consistent with the quotation marks: Without the flag’s luster, it’s a symbol as hollow as the patriotism, or “patriotism,” for which it stands.

Ink Painting #18, by West Lebanon artist Mary Jane Morse, commands perhaps the greatest presence in the show, especially since its part of its impact lies in discovering it. Tucked inside a far wall on the lower level of the gallery, it’s hidden from every angle except dead-on.

The large, unsettling wall-hanging is a sea of blurry forms, ambiguously human. Some of the forms in the center of the painting are clearly meant to resemble faces in various states of psychic pain, but at the edges, things are less clear. The shapes are just ghostly enough to cast doubt on whether they are meant depict human faces, or whether this is only a case of pareidolia — a trick of the mind that causes us to perceive a familiar pattern where no such form exists. This is why we see dinosaurs in cloud formations, and big dippers in the sky, and faces in twists of smoke or fog.

The bottom half of Morse’s painting is awash in ink drippings: a conversion from ether to liquid, as rain from clouds, if rain ran with the same ineluctable blackness as despair.

But it’s also worth keeping eyes peeled for more subtle works, such as the sketches of Elizabeth Slater,which are easy to pass over at first glance because they look, and are, unfinished.

The Claremont artist acknowledges the drawings’ arrested development in her artist statement: “Sketches … are often used to capture a moment or as studies of later work. Most stay stowed away in sketch books, unframed, never to see the light of day,” she writes. “These sketches … were created without any intention to be framed or shown.”

The roughness of Slater’s drawings is connected to a long history of black-and-white media in Western art — Renaissance artists often made grisaille (gray monochrome) sketches to serve as guides for finished pieces — and run refreshingly counter to the typical artist-musician-writer’s vanity about sharing unpolished work.

But even before these tonal guides came into popularity, the monochrome carried a certain kind of sanctity, with artists often using grisaille to depict Christian saints and martyrs in paintings. Color was considered by many to be an illusion, a distraction — or, as Herman Melville once scathingly wrote — nothing “but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified nature absolutely paints like a harlot.”

Ouch.

My first instinct is to say that this is far too harsh. Then again, I can’t quite get behind the artworks in “Black & White” that use red or blue, even sparingly, even in excellent taste, in an exhibition that explicitly calls for the dullest of hues. It feels like cheating. The red provides a nice visual pop, yes, but it also detracts from what a lack of color forces us to focus on — lines, texture, contrast, and so forth.

Which is part of the fun of removing what often draws us to a piece in the first place: It destabilizes and complicates the way we see.

“Black & White,” an invitational and juried exhibit at the Library Arts Center in Newport, N.H., features work by artists from around New England in a variety of media. Through April 7.

Openings and Receptions

The 10th annual Best of the Upper Valley High School Exhibition opens Friday with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at AVA Gallery and Art Center, in Lebanon. The show features student work nominated by art faculty at Upper Valley high schools, including Hanover High School; Hartford Area Career and Technology Center; Hartford High School; Holderness School, in Plymouth, N.H.; Kimball Union Academy, in Meriden; Lebanon High School; Ledyard Charter School, in Lebanon; Mascoma Valley Regional High School, in Canaan; Newport High School; Oxbow High School, in Bradford, Vt.; Rivendell Academy, in Orford; The Sharon Academy; Stevens High School, in Claremont; Thetford Academy; and Woodstock Union High School. The painter Patrick Dunfey, who is head of exhibitions design and planning at the Hood Museum of Art, in Hanover, judges this year’s awards. On view through March 9.

More student work appears in the Kilton Public Library, in West Lebanon, starting Wednesday, with art by Lebanon Middle School students. This display continues through March. Work by Mount Lebanon Elementary School students will be shown from April 5 through May.

Call for Artists

Mascoma River Greenway is calling for submissions of weatherproof art, to be permanently installed along the Lebanon Rail Trail this summer. Artists are encouraged to incorporate railroad spikes, collected by the City of Lebanon Recreation Department and the Mascoma River Greenway Coalition during the clean-up of the rail trail, into their pieces.

An “intent to submit” form is due by Feb. 26. For more information go to mascomagreenway.com.

Ongoing

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. “Journey,” an exhibition of paintings by Brenda Phillips, is on view through March 9.

Barrette Center for the Arts, White River Junction. “VoxSomnium,” an exhibition of mixed-media work by Norwich artist Laura Di Piazza, is presented in conjunction with the Vermont Pastel Society’s group exhibition and the production of Only Yesterday at Northern Stage, the theater company that calls the Barrette Center home.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. A retrospective exhibition of paintings by Nancy Taplin, of Warren, Vt., is on view until March 31.

Center for the Arts, New London. Exhibits in micro-galleries at Lake Sunapee Bank, the New London Inn and Whipple Hall are on view through April 30.

Chandler Gallery, Randolph. “A Closer Look” features photography by Valerie Daniel, of Bethel; watercolors and mixed media work by Judy Laliberte, of Quechee; and chalk pastels by Jo Levasseur, of South Royalton. Through March 3.

Chelsea Public Library. “Photographs: A Teenage Perspective,” a show by Strafford resident and Sharon Academy senior Hadley Greene, runs through February.

Chew & Co. Design, Hanover. The egg tempera and gold leaf paintings of Windsor artist Gary Milek are on view through February.

Claremont Opera House. Rural Outright, the LGBTQ support program of Claremont-based TLC Family Resource Center, shows art by Upper Valley students in an exhibit on the theme of #KindnessInAction. Through Saturday.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. Thetford ceramicist Amanda Ann Palmer’s show, “Recent Explorations in Clay,” includes rustic pieces as well as items from Palmer’s “Relics” series, inspired by seed pods. Ten percent of art sales will go toward the Friends of Lyme Library. Through March 30.

Hood Downtown, Hanover. “Reason’s Oxymorons,” a video installation by the French-Algerian artist and philosopher Kader Attia, dissects Western and non-Western conceptions of mental health through a range of interviews. Through March 18.

Hopkins Center, Hanover. Judy Glantzman, Dartmouth College’s artist-in-residence, exhibits recent work in drawing, painting, mixed media collage and sculpture in clay and carved wood in “Vigilant on Behalf of Kindness.” On view in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery through March 4.

Long River Gallery and Gifts, White River Junction. Stoneware paintings by the Bradford, Vt., potter Bruce Murray are on view through February.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Hanover. Sisters Patti Warren, of Lebanon, and Rosalie desGroseilliers, of Hardwick, Vt., exhibit work in “The Zen of Watercolor.” Through Feb. 27.

Quechee Inn at Marshland Farms. “Winter Magic,” a show of watercolors and pastels by Kate Reeves, is on view through March 14.

Tunbridge Public Library. “Before the Storm,” an exhibition of abstract landscapes by the Barre, Vt., painter Jennifer Palkowski Jacques, is on view through March 7.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, in White River Junction. Work from Body Language, a collaboration of poetry and prints by Don and V. Shalvah Herzberg, both of Norwich, is up through March 31.

White River Gallery at BALE, South Royalton. “Post-Apocalyptic Woodcuts for ¾ Empire,” by Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theater, runs through March 3.

Zollikofer Gallery, White River Junction. South Royalton artist Cecily Herzig shows recent paintings in “Dark Botanicals and Swamp Nonsense.” Through March 31.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.