Art Review: Bradley Borthwick’s Mixed-Media Installation Presents Relics — or Portents — of Rise and Decline | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: Bradley Borthwick’s Mixed-Media Installation Presents Relics — or Portents — of Rise and Decline


Published November 24, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 29, 2021 at 2:43 p.m.

From "Objects of Empire" installation by Bradley Borthwick - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • From "Objects of Empire" installation by Bradley Borthwick

Bradley Borthwick's exhibition "Objects of Empire" conveys much more than first meets the eye. In the second-floor gallery of Burlington's BCA Center, warm spotlights focus on two rather austere installations. The lighting is otherwise dim, lending the smallish room a secret-chamber sense of intimacy.

To the left, an amphora nearly four feet long emerges half-carved from a 600-pound block of Vermont Olympian white marble, as if adorning a sarcophagus. It rests on three thick beams of Atlantic white cedar, each 24 inches long. A narrow marble tablet, or headstone, is propped against the amphora.

Fifteen replicas of the tablet, cast in beeswax, lean against an opposite wall. Five of these are elevated above the others on cedar blocks. The tablets are 20.5 inches wide, 31 inches tall and 1.5 inches thick. Their elegantly carved inscription is in memory of a Mr. John Pratt, buried in 1768 in the Old Bennington Cemetery, where Borthwick first spotted the headstone.

An accompanying soundscape features a relentless industrial clank paired with a melancholic piano melody. Gradually, the composition builds in intensity, then fades and builds again and again. The sound is hypnotic, simultaneously attracting and repelling.

As Borthwick explained in a phone call, he recorded the hydraulic hammer in a metalworking shop near his home in Maine. He then sent the file to his brother-in-law, S.J. Kardash, a musician and producer in Saskatchewan. Kardash composed and played the piano part and synced it to the machine's chugging rhythm.

While the audio component of "Objects of Empire" sets a mood, the visual elements present an alluring cipher. The objects might be relics, or portents, or perhaps both. Their placement is clearly intentional but recalls the approximate order of a salvage warehouse. Visitors may wonder, What is going on here?

According to the guide, written by BCA curator and director of exhibitions Heather Ferrell, "Borthwick thoughtfully ponders the shared cycles of civilization by investigating two seemingly incongruent, manufactured objects — an 18th century Vermont headstone known as the Pratt tablet and an ancient, Roman-era amphora ... [He] presents each form as a powerful signifier of memory, place, and cultural connection."

Pratt tablets in beeswax by Bradley Borthwick - COURTESY OF JOHN FLANAGAN/BCA CENTER
  • Courtesy Of John Flanagan/BCA Center
  • Pratt tablets in beeswax by Bradley Borthwick

The Ontario-born artist, now an associate professor of art at Colby College, is indeed drawn to studying history, both cultural and industrial. The amphora and the tablet are "markers of a time and place," he said. They are remnants of both rise and decline.

Borthwick suggests that objects are more than just physical detritus; they can hold collective memory. "There's a resonance that I feel when I'm carving stone," he said. "I can't explain it, but I know it's there."

Found at sites around Europe and the Mediterranean region, caches of amphorae testify to the vast reaches of the Roman empire. The Pratt tablet — "one of the earliest works in Vermont marble to be placed in a cemetery," Ferrell observes — denotes a different sort of empire: the flourishing quarries and stone-carving industries of New England.

Borthwick's juxtaposition of elements here is fascinating — and more than a little mind-tingling. The exhibit is not didactic, but it offers tantalizing mental rabbit holes. A consideration of millennia-spanning time itself is one of them: The amphora exists in that distant past we call "antiquity." The headstone is merely old — from an accessible past that is evident in cemeteries all over Vermont. What links these periods together is unfathomably primeval stone, taken from the earth and put to human use in life and death throughout the ages.

2021 is a comfortable remove from the rise and fall of ancient Rome, less so from the decline of a once-robust economy in Vermont. What is decidedly uncomfortable to contemplate is the present period of degradation — of climate, natural resources, civility, democracy. As Borthwick writes in his statement for a previous exhibition, titled simply "Amphorae": "[W]hat might these symbols of Empire allow us to recognize in our current placement along the cycling of civilizations?"

Borthwick's use of beeswax reflects an alarming decline: that of bee colonies. "Conceptually we know that without honeybees, we don't have much of a food supply," he said. But the materiality of beeswax has a less-obvious significance in the exhibition, as well.

Pratt tablet detail - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Pratt tablet detail

"Beeswax is inert," Borthwick explained. "The material doesn't spoil; it doesn't degrade." As long as the temperature doesn't exceed the melting point of 147 degrees Fahrenheit, those beeswax replicas will outlast his stone sculptures. As evidence, Borthwick pointed out that stone structures fall victim to abrasive elements over time — and that ancient Romans kept records on tabulae made of beeswax. Many of them remain intact to this day, he said, housed in the museums of Rome.

The beeswax tablets also grace "Objects of Empire" with a pleasant aroma and a warm, earthy color — a contrast to the cold white stone. The materiality of each component, including the reddish blocks of wood, enhances the others aesthetically.

As an artist, Borthwick said, he's become more conscientious about the finite natural resources he uses. And in his sculpture classes at Colby College, where he's taught for eight years, his students are now more likely to use reclaimed wood and remnant blocks of stone, he said.

Borthwick is playing the long game, as it were, mindful of the past and future of the earth-based materials he's used and loved for 20-plus years. "It's not trendy," he said of stone. "But I have an ongoing belief that marble can still speak to people."

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Empire Strikes Out"

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