Artists Get Aerial With "ALOFT" in the Mad River Valley | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Artists Get Aerial With "ALOFT" in the Mad River Valley


Published June 12, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

"Cicada Wing Wheel" by Catherine Gowen - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Cicada Wing Wheel" by Catherine Gowen

At Mad River Valley Arts in Waitsfield, the group exhibition "ALOFT" throws convention to the wind. The show takes on not only the concept of flight but also any idea associated with the air — from the atmospheric to the ethereal. Collecting works by local and a few out-of-state artists, as well as historical objects, the exhibition is a fun, fascinating and appropriately scattered take on the airborne.

Waitsfield photographer Julie Parker's digital images of insects offer a macro-lens view, showing the hairlike structures on a luna moth's wing and the geometry of a dragonfly's. She manipulates some of the images, highlighting the bug's symmetry or its translucence. These are beautiful, haunting vignettes.

"Degas Dancers" by Julie Parker - COURTESY
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  • "Degas Dancers" by Julie Parker

Princeton, N.J.-based Catherine Gowen's delicate, deliberate watercolor "Cicada Wing Wheel" also shows off the insect anatomy, but where Parker's images show close-ups that could be any bug, each wing structure in Gowen's picture belongs to a different individual. Torn or broken off at different points, they look like bits you might find on a sidewalk in the summer.

According to her artist's statement, Gowen organized them in a circle "to suggest the cyclical nature of their underground and aboveground lifecycle, and their periodic emergence." The piece reads as a mandala or fairy circle, overlaying Gowen's naturalist style with a hint of mysticism.

"Irony 1,2,3" by Aaron Scot Ingham, Bent Nails Studios; - COURTESY
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  • "Irony 1,2,3" by Aaron Scot Ingham, Bent Nails Studios;

Aaron Scot Ingham of Bent Nails Studios in Marshfield created three goofy, decidedly unscientific bugs out of old insect-spray canisters and tennis rackets. They perch whimsically — and a bit menacingly — on the wall, reminding us of the poisons that humans have pumped into the environment.

Curator Sam Talbot-Kelly sees Mad River Valley Arts' role as bridging nature and culture; she said the nonprofit art organization is "rooted in the Valley," where community identity is strongly tied to the outdoors. Talbot-Kelly considers exhibitions such as "ALOFT" opportunities to express activism through beauty and to encourage visitors to think about nature in new ways.

Barre photographer Rob Spring captured images of puffins and sandhill cranes from a kayak in Alaska, where he could see the puffins run across the surface of the water to take off. The photos are printed on matte paper and framed without glass. The small prints, with birds in black and white against an expanse of gray sky, look like graphite drawings. They describe the beauty of these birds while suggesting their disappearance.

Sandra Grant, a Warren-based fiber artist, contributed two pieces, "Dancing Loon" and "Spoonbill's Nest," that incorporate wool, beads, feathers and ribbons — as if she were building nests. The reliefs are dimensional, textured and vivid. Their thick, tightly packed weave doesn't allow for any airiness but does convey birdie-ness. Perhaps Grant is asking how on Earth these fluffy creatures get off the ground.

Waitsfield-based Ray Parker pursued a time-based approach to flight. He converted videos of crows and pigeons into single photographs, overlaying many frames so each bird's path appears as a calligraphic line moving across the print. The resulting pictures, such as "Crow Storm," present flight as an organized, ominous mass overhead.

World War I propellers from the collection of David Bahnson - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • World War I propellers from the collection of David Bahnson

"ALOFT" doesn't ignore human approaches to flight. Seeking flight-related design objects for the exhibition, Talbot-Kelly consulted with Sugarbush Soaring and was directed to David Bahnson. The Rutland orthopedic surgeon, who collects antique wooden airplane propellers, lent seven to the show. Six of these date from the World War I era and are mounted together on a constructed rack. At up to nine feet, the curved, varnished propellers are sculptural, like giant wooden dragonfly wings. They have the aura and luster of contemporary artisanal craftsmanship, even though these were precision-driven machines, and serve as reminders of early pilots' audacity in taking to the air.

Some intriguing works in the show incorporate air in unexpected ways. Montpelier-based Joe Loccisano's charcoal drawings of barn interiors give a sense of the space in the trusses of a hayloft; crisscrossing beams and ladders offer the viewer a path up and through the precarious structure.

Art Schaller's "Billboard Building" collages stand out, depicting blocky forms that look like stilt houses built in colorful wastelands. The works have remarkable depth, shadow and sense of space. They work at many perceived scales — the structures could be dollhouses or apartment blocks. Either way, it's clear the Northfield architect considers the empty space and movement of air around a building as well as its mass.

Two small paintings by Los Angeles-based Katie Stubblefield are abstract but suggest broken windows. She uses white and gray horizontal lines, shard-like silvery forms, and washy inks to create a sense of turbulence. In her statement, Stubblefield says her work is influenced by climate change and addresses "the updrafts, microburst[s], dust devils, tornadoes and hurricanes that we globally experience in person or witness electronically."

"Crow Storm" by Ray Parker - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Crow Storm" by Ray Parker

The show's premise includes not only the airborne but also the ethereal. The word conjures the heavenly, and these days it's also often associated with the incorporeal world of digital things stored "in the cloud." Several of the artists in the show use digital photo generation and manipulation as tools to make physical artworks. The medium is immaterial.

St. Johnsbury artist Dominique Gustin uses "synthography" — that is, AI-generated images — as a starting place. She further manipulates each image digitally, prints it and mounts it to a panel, and reworks it with physical mediums such as charcoal and encaustic wax. She then carves and polishes the piece to give it a gleam. The layers and imperfections in the wax, as much as the strange imagery, contribute to the dreamlike quality of Gustin's work.

Montpelier artist Cara Armstrong offers up colorful digital drawings of the Capital City from an aerial perspective. The lines in her cartoonlike clusters of houses and blocky skies look as though they were drawn with a digital stylus, but her work would be more powerful done by hand. They are missing a sense of pressure on the surface and, though the colors are crisp and clear, pixelation sometimes gets in the way of her lines.

Curatorially, "ALOFT" had an ambitious mission: to corral disparate mediums and styles and to highlight the mysterious, magical qualities of our atmosphere. The concept is so expansive that it could benefit from more space, yet the selected artworks combine rich perspectives and together point in a new direction: up, up and away.

"ALOFT" is on view through June 27 at Mad River Valley Arts in Waitsfield.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lofty Ideals | Artists get aerial in the Mad River Valley"

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