Art Review: “New England Now: People,” Shelburne Museum | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: “New England Now: People,” Shelburne Museum

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Published August 25, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


"Untitled (Rocky Coast of Maine)" by Cobi Moules - COURTESY OF COBI MOULES
  • Courtesy Of Cobi Moules
  • "Untitled (Rocky Coast of Maine)" by Cobi Moules

The pandemic forced the Shelburne Museum to close last fall, but it reopened in June with an appropriately celebratory exhibition. "New England Now: People" features positive representations of all sorts of humans. Ten artists created these mostly large-scale works in a variety of mediums.

In a series of black-and-white photographs, drag queens help each other primp for a performance; in another set, economically disadvantaged folks party it up in backyards and bars. In one painting, a cleaning woman crouching before a toilet is arrayed in the sparkling headpiece of a Brazilian deity; another depicts an active crowd consisting of dozens of images of the same man, in a red plaid shirt and yellow toque, climbing over and posing along a rocky Maine shoreline.

The exhibit is a joyful expression of the richness of identity itself.

Yet the show acquires a certain gravity when a viewer considers the context of these artists' work. The concept of the "New Englander," with its colonial-remnant name, comes with certain associations and assumptions. The colonies that became the six states we know today began with the founding of Plymouth in Massachusetts by white Puritans fresh off the Mayflower.

That the region grew by capturing, enslaving and killing the Native inhabitants is often left off the narrative. Instead, iconic New England paintings such as Winslow Homer's "Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)" and Norman Rockwell's "Freedom of Speech" celebrate whiteness, not to mention a kind of ideal maleness.

In contrast, this exhibition embraces inclusivity of all kinds.

"New England Now: People" is the second in a biennial series the Shelburne Museum launched in 2018. "New England Now" presented landscapes that went beyond the iconic, picture-postcard image of the region. Associate curator Carolyn Bauer, who organized both iterations, said the series is meant to showcase contemporary regional artists whose work "challenges perceptions and misperceptions" about the Northeast.

"'People' is a big topic," Bauer declared, guiding a reporter around the current show, "so the focus is on how contemporary artists are challenging traditional portraiture."

She added that the works "are not about physical appearance but inner identities." In fact, both aspects of identity are conspicuous throughout the show.

Bauer explained that "People" represents all six New England states through the artists' current or former residency. Some state ties are tenuous, she admitted: Cobi Moules, creator of those multiplied self-portraits, lives in Philadelphia but conceived of his series, "Bois Just Wanna Have Fun," while living in Boston 13 years ago.

Three of the artists live in Vermont: the skilled Middlebury portraitist Kate Gridley; performance artist Toby MacNutt of Burlington; and photographer Evie Lovett, born in Putney, who shot those drag queens backstage at a Dummerston bar.

"American Indian With Dot on Face / Indian American With Dot on Face" by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew - IMAGES COURTESY OF ANNU PALAKUNNATHU MATTHEW
  • Images Courtesy Of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew
  • "American Indian With Dot on Face / Indian American With Dot on Face" by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

The artist with the best sense of humor about identity is Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, who lives in Providence, R.I., and teaches art at the University of Rhode Island. Born in England to Indian parents, Matthew grew up in India from age 11. After moving to the U.S., she found that Americans often asked her "what kind of Indian" she is. "An Indian from India" became the title of her fascinating and disruptive series on view.

In it, the artist plays on historic photographs of Native Americans, including those of Edward S. Curtis, who famously staged his portraits, disregarding tribal customs and historical accuracy in favor of romanticized images. Matthew creates diptychs by pairing those photographic portraits with shots of herself.

In the latter, she is dressed and posed similarly to the early 20th-century photographers' subjects but with exaggerated markers of her own Indianness: a large red bindi on her forehead, a sequined head veil. As a commentary on colonialism's reductive effects, the two "Indians" are presented as interchangeable, minus a few details. (In some, Matthew poses as the colonized man depicted in the historic photo.)

"It's definitely loaded," Bauer said of Matthew's work. At the same time, she adds, the artist refers to her diptychs as "handshakes" across cultures — an acknowledgment of their parallel experiences.

A kind of reverse mythologizing is going on in Massachusetts-based artist Sammy Chong's three canvases. Each of them shows what we now call essential workers, as Bauer pointed out — immigrants performing the difficult and often unrecognized work of cooking, harvesting and cleaning — while wearing masks of their native countries' mythological figures. Chong paints his subjects' portraits on top of silk-screened photographic collages that depict their rich cultural histories.

In "Water Queen," for instance, the face of the woman cleaning the toilet — hidden by the headpiece of a Yoruba water spirit — is roughly parallel with a silk-screened image of Pelé, the Brazilian soccer phenom, on the wall behind the toilet.

"Food of the Earth" by Sammy Chong - COURTESY OF SAMMY CHONG
  • Courtesy Of Sammy Chong
  • "Food of the Earth" by Sammy Chong

Chong's "Food of the Earth" shows a Mexican farm laborer in a Mayan mask striding through a field; images of Chichén Itzá and other ancient pyramids are integrated into the sky and mountains behind him.

The exhibition includes one video installation: a 15-minute compilation of excerpts from a much longer performance by MacNutt. On their website, MacNutt identifies as a "queer, nonbinary-trans, disabled multidisciplinary artist, author and teacher." Their work explores, among other aspects of their identity, "the unique aesthetics of disabled dance."

MacNutt experiences chronic pain from a connective-tissue disorder. Yet only joy of movement comes through in the video, in which they wield arm stilts while draped with a purple cape. MacNutt pivots as if on another pair of legs, the fabric swirling in the air.

A commissioned work for "New England Now: People" is its most visually impactful: the 106-by-108-by-10-inch circular hair weaving, titled "Oculus," by Nafis M. White. In outsize proportions, the work references the traditionally minuscule Victorian-era weaving of loved ones' strands of hair into jewelry or mourning wreaths.

"Oculus" uses synthetic hair in a variety of colors, woven in swirling patterns of braids, cornrows and other Black hairstyles. White, who lives in Providence, honors all three strands, as it were, of her identity with this piece: African, African American and English Scottish.

The exhibition's most moving works are eight black-and-white portraits by Erik Williams, a street photographer from Hartford, Conn. His series "On the Outside" features the kind of residents who are often unseen: the disenfranchised and neglected, for whom daily life can be a struggle.

And yet, remarkably, Williams' crisp, often spontaneous portraits — made after he gets to know his subjects through conversation — convey a dignity and validation that society does not necessarily accord them. He captures individuals and the beauty they embody, albeit sometimes marred by hard living.

In one vertical portrait — the photographer doesn't title his works or identify the subjects by name — an attractive young Black couple gazes at the camera with an assured and contented look. And that's enough for Williams. "I'm drawn to people that radiate energy and great character," he explains in an online artist statement, "because that's all that truly matters."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Who We Are"

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  • Shelburne Museum

    Shelburne