In the Chinese lunar calendar, 2009 was the year of the ox, but in Southeast Asia it was the year of the buffalo. Water buffalo are essential to the agrarian economies of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, acting as tractors to plow rice paddies and hitched to carts that haul goods to market. Vermont painter Barbara Wagner visited that corner of the world last year and returned with a wealth of visual information. It generated an exhibit of 17 paintings at Shelburne’s Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery titled “In the Year of the Buffalo,” which explores the colors, textures and rhythms Wagner discovered on her travels. Wagner has exhibited widely for many years as a bold abstract expressionist. This new body of work, however, includes more concrete images directly drawn from her Asian experiences.
“In the Year of the Buffalo — Elephant Wall, Angkor Wat” is a 30-by-36-inch oil that refers to the 12th-century Hindu temple complex in Cambodia. In the painting, hulking pachyderm forms appear as subtle, ghostly shapes in the lowest tier. Wagner’s palette resembles that of masonry.
The artist has organized most of her works into shallow-spaced, tiered compositions, evoking walls or screens, and the number five is a recurring motif. Wagner’s artist statement explains its significance: “Because the number five is so important in this culture, all the paintings incorporate five divisions as part of their structure.”
Just below the top tier of “In the Year of the Buffalo — Women of Sa Pa,” seven whimsical geometric figures look like fragile paper dolls. The 36-by-36-inch oil shows examples of colorful native dress in the delicate little figures. Sa Pa is a picturesque village in northwest Vietnam’s Lao Cai province, a mountainous area with an idyllic climate.
“In the Year of the Buffalo — Floating Village #1” restates the colorful canopies of the floating villages of Halong Bay in southern Vietnam. It’s only 12 inches square, but the mixed-media oil on handmade paper and canvas is lively and memorable. Wagner’s brushwork dances over the surface, forming fine vertical lines between the patches of scarlet, blue, ocher, gray and green.
“In the Year of the Buffalo #7,” another 12-inch-square oil, has some of the most engaging textures found in the show. Wagner painted the abstraction on linen and embellished its surface with Cambodian silk, bamboo and handmade paper. The picture plane is deeper here, and the composition departs from the five-band theme found in many of the other works. Dark patches of crimson and red inhabit the lower right corner of the piece, anchoring the boxy shapes built up at left. Passages of fine silk mesh are collaged over the surface, while the vertically oriented bamboo shreds lie buried in the paint. Wagner’s background colors are yellow and gold; deep indigo rounds out the small painting’s sophisticated harmony of hues.
Western painters have been attracted to exotic lands at least since Eugène Delacroix captured the colors of North Africa in the 1830s. The art inspired by Wagner’s journey to Southeast Asia fits that tradition, at least conceptually. As the world becomes a smaller and smaller place, Asian and African artists may seek out the “exotic” in Europe and America in their turn. But, for artists entranced with the character of bamboo and silk, the traffic will continue to flow west to east for quite some time.