It's hard to believe the artist responsible for the G-rated leapfroggers on Burlington's Church Street also created the X-rated work that commandeered the "exes" exhibit at a Middlebury gallery last Saturday night.
Dennis Sparling attributed his turn toward aesthetic effrontery to having reached an age "where I no longer give a shit what people think."
That attitude gave rise to more than Sparling's copper representation of a thighs-to-chest figure with an erect penis and a pair of gilded walnuts dangling in a wire cage. Many of the nine other artists taking part in the one-night-stand art show were clearly scorched by the same flaming Muse, although none of their works was so ostentatiously salacious.
"Exposure of an erection is rare in Western art," Sparling commented as viewers halted, some tittering, before the male half of his paired "X-Boxes." The adjacent display of a complementary slice of female anatomy, also sculpted as a relief inside a protruding frame, did not elicit the same responses - confirmation of Sparling's conversational observation that full-frontal female nudity shocks almost no one who enters an American art gallery or museum.
"The X Show: Husbands Wives Lovers Muses" also offered more subtle interpretations of its ingenious theme. Organizer Doug Lazarus invited artists who regularly show at the Great Falls Gallery to create works expressive of their experiences with exes. The pain men and women relentlessly inflict on one another can prove redemptive when it's translated into art, he suggests. "Music is loaded with this theme of break-ups. Shouldn't the visual arts get into it, too?" Lazarus suggests. Former partners and lost lovers were depicted both sweetly and sourly in the exhibit.
At first, many of Lazarus' fellow artists balked at the assignment. "They said they had healed, had reached closure or whatever, and didn't want to dredge it all up," he relates. But Lazarus insisted they at least try to address the subject of exes. Soon "the pieces were just pouring out," he says.
Mary Swanson, a part-time artist who earns a living as a clairvoyant, initially found Lazarus' request "weird but really intriguing." Once she started painting images of her ex-husband, "I couldn't help remembering and feeling," Swanson says. "Things got externalized - stuff I hadn't even known was in there."
The result of Swanson's "processing" was the show's single most moving work. Her black-and-white oil portrait of her former spouse, a Paul Newman lookalike, may not have been as startling as Sparling's penis piece, but it was certainly more beautiful. The smiling - or is he smirking? - middle-aged man looks confidently out of the canvas, hat tipped back and a coat slung jauntily over his shoulder.
A few of the show's 50 or so pieces were laugh-out-loud funny. Among them were Mary Ferguson's close-ups of a trio of bare-toothed, bug-eyed figures. Two - entitled "Him!" and "Her!" - depict Ferguson's former husband and the lover who wrecked their marriage. The third, gaily colored canvas portrays a cockamamie attorney who represented the couple's children in the nasty divorce proceedings. It's appropriately titled "Ex-Lawyer!"
Lazarus, who's also a portraitist, was represented by a number of paintings, all of them featuring women. They were the show's most technically accomplished works, but not its most emotionally charged. Their detachment may be the product of the artist's stated intention of conveying "not so much my personal history as conclusions I've come to about this male-female dance."
In one painting, the blond has facial features similar to those of "my latest ex," Lazarus explains. Is she smiling or snarling? "She's thinking of some way of evening the score."
Hanging nearby is "The Verdict," a deftly executed composition in which a group of younger women sitting at a sidewalk café expectantly encircle an elder who appears to be dispensing advice. "Women tend to look to older women for answers to their lives," Lazarus says. "Men see their lives as peculiarly their own. A dad will tell you to dust yourself off and to keep going, but he doesn't give you much information. Women give each other endless information."
Lazarus' musings on "the male-female dance" were the effective cause of his decision to stage the exes exhibit - and to make it a one-night-only event. The more immediate inspiration for the show was a suite of paintings of ex-girlfriends by Great Falls artist Seth Bordanaro. All but one of those hanging in the gallery last Saturday night are skillful, traditional representations of young and often bare-breasted women.
The largest of the works could have been titled "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." "Pieta Dell Iride" presents a beautiful woman holding flowers in one hand, a sheet draped over her sexy shoulder. To her side and below, receding into the background, a male figure writhes, his head thrust back and his mouth agape. His posture of pained helplessness is accentuated by his reddened skin; it's as though he's being boiled alive.
Many of the pieces in this uneven show were neither powerful nor effective. A few were downright amateurish. But that doesn't matter much to Lazarus. The point, from his perspective, is to be inspired by the exes theme without being limited by it. In his series of drawings and etchings on the horrors of war, Goya set out not only to examine this aspect of the human experience, but to create "wild images that go way beyond the subject matter itself," Lazarus notes. "It's the same thing here."
Now Lazarus wants the show to go on the road - in Vermont and beyond - with works by other artists added along the way.
The crowd that kept the gallery full for much of the night consisted mostly of people on the far side of 50. Only a few unwrinkled art lovers made this scene, maybe because twentysomethings haven't lived long enough to experience the anguish that accompanies the end of a long-term relationship.
Paul McMahon knows how it feels. The white-haired blacksmith was standing in a semi-daze near Sparling's outré sculpture as he mentioned that his wife of 26 years had kicked him out of his house a month before.
What did McMahon think of a show that cut so close to the bone?
"I love it," he said. "Everybody's got an ex. Anybody can relate."