- Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
- "Hair Shirt"
On the second floor of the BCA Center in Burlington, the exhibit "Pivotal Moments" is modest in size but eloquent in scope; it's a testament to the wide-ranging interests and exquisite skills of Vermont artist Diane Gabriel. Sadly, the show is posthumous; Gabriel died unexpectedly in 2017 at age 70. Viewing her prints, photographs and mixed-media creations, one wonders what she would have thought of this abbreviated survey of her prolific art-making over some 40 years.
The task of selection fell to BCA curator and director of exhibitions Heather Ferrell, who pored over works in the home Gabriel had shared with her husband, Mark Stoler. "We found about 600 pieces of Diane's work in the house," Stoler said in a phone call. With printmaking in particular, Gabriel liked to work in series, he noted, "so there are a lot of multiples."
"Pivotal Moments" presents 13 two-dimensional works — prints and photographs, as well as one drawing — and a trio of objects in freestanding vitrines. The latter pieces capture the eye immediately as one enters the gallery.
"Hair Shirt" initially elicits a smile, perhaps because small things are adorable. Supported internally so that it stands upright, the child-size dress shirt is made from delicate paper; tea-stained, its ocher blotches recall ancient walls. The dressmaking is impeccable: pointed collar, patch pocket, tiny buttons and buttonholes. The shirt is unbuttoned, like a door left ajar for a visitor.
Those who peek inside will be rewarded with an explanation for the title: Clouds of human hair, resembling hirsute dust bunnies, fill the space where one would expect a body. While punny and clever, the piece also conveys a sense of loss, of hollowness. One wishes the artist were there to answer questions: Whose hair is this? Who or what is missing? Whose penitence?
Two objects share the second vitrine. "Baby Slippers on Thorns" is a pair of tea-dyed paper shoes in an early 20th-century style that balance awkwardly on long, needlelike thorns. Obviously not meant to be worn, they suggest any number of metaphors for the difficulty of standing up, moving forward, embarking on journeys.
- Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
- "Bag of Tears"
The other creation, "Bag of Tears," appears to the casual glance like a lady's purse with strands of clear plastic spilling out of it. The object loses its innocence with a closer look.
Using a transfer technique, Gabriel imprinted the tea-dyed muslin purse with photographs that are dark in every sense of the word: images from the Holocaust and other 20th-century genocides. Gallery text explains that Gabriel was descended from European Jews and grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, N.Y. She claimed to have "a complex relationship with her faith and cultural identity."
The text also explains that Gabriel took the idea and title for this piece from a speech by Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel in which he said he felt like he traveled the world collecting tears. Gabriel reportedly considered this her most important work.
There is also much to admire, however, in the artist's two-dimensional explorations. The oldest piece in this exhibit, from 1978, is a grid-based graphite drawing that Gabriel made two years after graduating from Goddard College. The techniques used in each of its 48 squares — smudging, puncturing, erasing, rubbing — show an emerging artist in thrall to variations on a theme.
The rigor of repetition is fundamental to certain printmaking techniques, including monoprints. One of the most remarkable examples in this exhibit illustrates Gabriel's deep interest in textiles as a form of communion with the past. "Shoah" lays out a baby sock, a bonnet, a dress and other items, which appear like fragile crocheted ghosts against a black background. The viewer is left to decipher this tableau, much as the brain might try to translate a photographic negative.
Several monotypes, or one-of-a-kind images, also appear in the exhibit. Like "Shoah," some of these are printed directly from textiles — a baby's embroidered christening dress in "Vessel #4," women's neckwear in "Two Collars Separated by One Hundred Years." Whatever personal meaning these items held for Gabriel, her manifestations with ink on paper are akin to memories caught in amber.
- Courtesy Of BCA Center
- "Shoah I"
Just three photographs are included in "Pivotal Moments": two compelling digital prints of young girls circa 2010 and a 1994 gelatin silver print of the New Haven River. The latter, captured with a plastic Holga camera, is a moody scene, with the water reflecting clouds and dark trees on either side guiding the eye toward a horizon point. The characteristic flaw of the low-fi Holga gives the image a sort of tunnel effect — in this case an impression of going toward the light.
Gabriel's exhibition comes in tandem with a new artist award in her name. She was the inaugural recipient of the Barbara Smail Award, which was supported by that late artist's family and has now run its course, according to BCA executive director Doreen Kraft.
"I didn't want to see this go away," Kraft said of the annually granted Smail award, which included a modest amount of cash and full use of BCA's studios.
The new Diane Gabriel Visual Artist Award will do the same. Kraft, who first met the artist in the 1970s, said her family "ended up loving the idea" of honoring her in this way. Stoler confirmed that he and Gabriel's son, sister and brother-in-law have committed to donating $3,500 per year for at least five years. The award winner will receive $1,500 in cash and use of BCA Studios for a year.
"Diane was so good — her artwork, even metaphorically, stitched together past and present," Kraft said. "So this award continues what her work was really about."
Correction, March 17, 2021: An earlier version of this story misstated the cash value of the Diane Gabriel Visual Artist Award. The award winner will receive $1,500 in cash and use of BCA Studios for a year.