An Exhibition by Axel Stohlberg and Daryl Burtnett Confronts Loss | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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An Exhibition by Axel Stohlberg and Daryl Burtnett Confronts Loss

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"Gratitude in a Time of Loss #1-611" by Daryl Burtnett - COURTESY OF KELLY HOLT
  • Courtesy Of Kelly Holt
  • "Gratitude in a Time of Loss #1-611" by Daryl Burtnett

While some recent art has reveled in an ex-pandemic ethos — there's more to life than the misery of the last two years! — the current exhibit at Susan Calza Gallery in Montpelier is a deeply felt grappling with loss, pandemic-related and otherwise.

"The Matter of Loss: Holding Spaces" combines works on paper by Daryl Burtnett of Montpelier with sculptures by Middlesex artist Axel Stohlberg in the gallery's jewellike room at the front of a high-ceilinged Victorian.

It's a beautiful pairing by cocurators Calza and Kelly Holt and, surprisingly, a first for the artists. Their works share both a palette — pale and somber, ranging from beige to gaping black — and a purpose.

The latter, for Stohlberg, is to somatize feelings of personal loss, whether of the past, a relationship that ended or a recently deceased family member. His gabled-house forms in rough-hewn woodblock or hardware cloth (aka chicken wire) are carved with passageways, cutaways and eerily empty extensions — volumes of air that embody loss. Stohlberg's sculptures are as much about what is not there as what is.

"Memory" by Axel Stohlberg - AMY LILLY
  • Amy Lilly
  • "Memory" by Axel Stohlberg

Above the gallery's fireplace, "Memory" projects into empty space, its wire outline of a house extending the simple form of the woodblock affixed to the wall. In Stohlberg's "Shadow" series, each basic woodblock construction — generally two pieces joined at 90 degrees — bears the outline or shadow of a house that is absent. The outlines continue around the pieces' edges, creating the impression of volume while signifying absence.

In the freestanding chicken-wire constructions, the emptiness expressed is painfully visible. "An Empty Space," a 15-inch tower, can't hide the circular hamster-wheel-looking form at its heart that encloses nothing but absence. "Untitled 3," a 10-inch-tall hardware cloth construction, is filled nearly to its gabled roof with stacked glass plates that catch the light; it's like a house that's flooding on the inside while a viewer watches in fascination from the outside.

"Untitled" by Axel Stohlberg - AMY LILLY
  • Amy Lilly
  • "Untitled" by Axel Stohlberg

The opposite effect is achieved in Stohlberg's freestanding wood houses painted with black gesso, such as "Untitled #5." The paint's unremitting flatness has the effect of making the work inaccessible, opaque. The same gesso highlights the cutout wound of "Untitled," a wall-hung block of natural wood missing its lower left quarter.

Stohlberg, 71, former director and founder of Axel's Frame Shop & Gallery in Waterbury, has been practicing art for decades. His drawings and sculptures have long evoked the form of a gabled house. Previously, however, the trope represented for him something "we can all relate to, a dwelling, a nest," Stohlberg said by phone.

"Untitled #5" by Axel Stohlberg - AMY LILLY
  • Amy Lilly
  • "Untitled #5" by Axel Stohlberg

"For years, the form has been a comfort thing," he explained. "The loss has been new for me."

While Stohlberg's losses are varied, Burtnett's work focuses on individuals lost to COVID-19. His installation, "Gratitude in a Time of Loss, #1-611," is a breathtaking homage to Vermonters who have died from the virus. Two small works hanging beside it, "The Uncounted 1" and "2," memorialize the homeless and others whose deaths from COVID-19 went untallied. (Those two are for sale; the installation is not.)

"Gratitude" consists of 611 index-card-size vertical rectangles of folded paper or parchment modified by tape, ink and acrylic paint, individually pinned to a freestanding wall. Arranged in chronological order, each represents a death during the first two years of the pandemic.

Burtnett, 64, primarily practiced photography until five years ago. He began making the paper packets in March 2020 using washi paper and archival tape and dipping them in a developing tray filled with sumi ink. He had made about 20 before realizing he was creating abstract compositions in response to Vermont's death count. They became a "solace," he writes in his artist statement, and a way of staying connected to the dead and their families, though he didn't know them.

"Gratitude in a Time of  Loss #417" by Daryl Burtnett - COURTESY OF KELLY HOLT
  • Courtesy Of Kelly Holt
  • "Gratitude in a Time of Loss #417" by Daryl Burtnett

As the project continued, Burtnett replaced the washi with used parchment paper a friend gave him after baking challah. He said he liked how ink beaded up on the masking tape. Eventually, he added pigments to the tray and experimented with graphite lines on some pieces.

Each packet is unique, like the person whose death it commemorates. Some are formed as a triptych, representing days in which three deaths took place in the state.

"I think that part of what drew me to making these pieces was to not sit alone staring at an unraveling tragedy — to do more than just despair," Burtnett explained during a phone call.

He added, "I live alone. I'm very isolated. I was just worried about everyone being so isolated."

"An Empty Space" by Axel Stohlberg - COURTESY OF KELLY HOLT
  • Courtesy Of Kelly Holt
  • "An Empty Space" by Axel Stohlberg

As more Vermonters have succumbed to the virus, Burtnett has continued his tributes; these are stacked and propped on the mantelpiece beside the installation, available for viewers to pick up, study and turn over. (They are finished on both sides.) He recently completed #630.

Burtnett continues to use the same dipping tray, replenishing but never emptying it. If the tray has reminded some viewers of a baptismal font, and the tape on some packets appears to make a cross, and the yellow pigment recalls the gold leaf of religious iconography, that's all accidental, the artist said. But, he added, "I welcome viewers to see anything that brings comfort and meaning for them."

Burtnett said he knows only one person who died from COVID-19, but he had a significant brush with it himself.

"I got COVID real bad, right at the very beginning. It was frightening, actually," he recalled. "I do think that played into this project. I'm a lucky one, you know?" m

The original print version of this article was headlined "Empty Spaces | A two-man exhibition at Susan Calza Gallery confronts absence"

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