What is Vermont art?

SVAC exhibition explores the question through the works of 11 contemporary Vermont-associated artists

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MANCHESTER — "Contemporary American Regionalism: Vermont Perspectives," featuring work from 11 contemporary Vermont-associated artists working in sculpture, fiber art, drawing and painting, opens on Saturday at the Southern Vermont Arts Center. There will be an opening reception from 4 to 6 p.m.

The exhibition strives to connect viewers to current contemporary American art and will showcase the artists' interaction with their chosen tools, mediums and environments. Guest curator Ric Kasini Kadour explains the history of the Regionalism movement below and why it is still relevant to art and artists today.

In the early part of the 20th century, Americans wrestled with Modernism and Europe's dominance over American art. American Scene Painting as expressed by Social Realism in urban areas and Regionalism in rural communities rose in popularity. The movement led by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry sought to wean America off the influence of European art and conceptualize an approach to art that was uniquely American and expressed the nation's values.

With its relatively conservative style and embrace of traditional themes, Regionalism was intensely popular with the American people. But the movement fell out of favor with the art world in 1942 and the realism of Regionalism was put, artificially, into conflict with Modernism. The break up left a schism that remains today and forms the basis of nearly eighty years of antagonism between the art world and the American public.

Kadour considers this moment in history as a stepping-off point for "Contemporary American Regionalism: Vermont Perspectives." The exhibition uses SVAC's permanent collection as a point of departure and presents contemporary art from eleven artists in light of the themes raised by 20th century Regionalists and relates how contemporary art speaks to present day issues and concerns. The exhibition is organized into two parts: The Land and The People.

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Far from the quintessential renderings of Regionalist painters, artists are raising issues about the Vermont landscape in a variety of media; issues that speak to Town Meeting Day topics about how we live in, use, and preserve the land. Working from an understanding that Vermont's natural world has been managed by humans since the 1630s, artists question how we think about Vermont's changing landscape, the natural world and our relationship to it.

With consideration for humankind's desire for the sublime, JoAnne Carson makes seriocomic paintings that consider the synthetic nature of the landscape. Gabriel Tempesta's monochromatic oil painting testifies to the changes taking place in Vermont as the state transitions from working pastures and fields back to the forest. Wendy Copp is concerned with a different kind of change to the landscape. Her sculptural outfits use invasive species as a comment on the Vermont's vegetation and wildlife. Diane Shullenberger makes fabric collages that invoke the atmosphere of the natural world and are a call for a deeper emotional connection to nature. David Brewster paints fast food drive throughs and big box shopping plazas with neon hues and broad dynamic strokes evocative of our technological age. These paintings ask the viewer to consider history as a force sweeping us into the future.

As early Regionalists used portrait and still life to portray the lives of people, the exhibition will show how contemporary artists are using a diverse set of strategies to portray the social, domestic, and spiritual lives of Vermonters. Carol MacDonald continues her use of knitting imagery to "address issues of community, life, transition, process and communication." As a comment on Vermont's weather, each of the six prints in her Orb Cycle series symbolizes a season. Paintings by James Secor and sculpture by Denis Versweyveld speak to the role of material objects in society. Secor's paintings marry everyday objects with images of self-storage facilities — that are ubiquitously popping up around Vermont — as a way of questioning consumption. Inspired by an old cemetery near his house, Versweyveld creates monuments to everyday objects that provide an opportunity to consider the formal essence of the objects around us and how they fit into our world. Two abstract painters show how contemporary artists are using the Modernist invention to explore complex themes. Wylie Garcia sees "paintings as psychological place holders for processing complex dynamics of emotions." Galen Cheney's spiritual, meditative works layer remnants of past experiences — receipts, old paintings, used airline tickets, etc. — into the surface of her paintings to imbue them with "memory, history, a sense of time, and an accidental quality."

Kadour is the editor of Vermont Art Guide, a quarterly magazine about contemporary art in Vermont. The exhibition manifests his thinking and research on Contemporary American Regionalism, which he defines as "a theoretical approach to the presentation, critique, and exhibition of contemporary American art." The theory involves a viewer-centric, community-oriented curatorial practice and strategies for connecting contemporary art to political, social, domestic, and spiritual issues of a defined community. The theory divorces American Regionalism from any stylistic constraints (to which it has been historically attached) and the theory does not presume that a community is geographically specific and may apply to social groups.

From printmakers to abstract artists, Vermont artists are commenting on who we are and how we live. "Contemporary American Regionalism: Vermont Perspectives" asks the question, "What is Vermont art?" and presents artwork and an argument for how these artists are speaking to their friends and neighbors. In this sense, the exhibition is asking us to consider the role contemporary art plays in our communities, civic discourse, and personal lives.

The exhibition is on view through Oct. 20.


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