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Eyes on the Prizes

Art Review


Published June 29, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: Northern Vermont Artist Association: A 75th annual juried show in multiple media. Bryan Memorial Art Gallery, Jeffersonville. Through July 10.

ARTWORK: "Windswept" by Craig Wiltse

Anyone who thinks the Northern Vermont Artist Association is filled only with landscape painters should visit Jeffersonville's Bryan Memorial Art Gallery this July. The NVAA's 75th annual juried show is underway, and while landscape enthusiasts will certainly love the diamond jubilee, the eclectic exhibition also provides a few surprises.

Among the roughly 100 works by 50 NVAA members are pieces in every medium, and they aren't all amateur renditions of Vermont's bucolic loveliness. This is a top-notch, professional show, and, if the catchphrase "diversity is strength" has merit, the NVAA is getting stronger every year. Fifteen awards were granted by the 2005 jurors -- Lillian Zuber, director of The Art Gallery at Stowe, central Vermont installation artist Janet Van Fleet, and St. Michael's College Professor Emeritus Dr. William Tortolano. While prize-worthiness is always subjective, most of the jury's choices are easy to agree with.

An American Pen Women Award, funded through the National League of American Pen Women, was granted to abstractionist Lyna Lou Nordstrom for her black-and-white solar-plate etching "Markings Triptych." This technique creates imagery by placing transparencies onto photosensitive plates in sunlight; they're then etched with water in a nontoxic process. The three panels of Nordstrom's triptych are framed together horizontally. The fattest passages of mark-making anchor each end, while a flurry of thin, stringy, tangled lines animates the triptych's center. Nordstrom's pictorial organization could be likened to the A-B-A sonata form in music, with the first part of the image echoed, but not copied, in the third.

A more direct reference to music appears in the work of NVAA Merit Award winner Jane Desjardin. She must have executed her energetic abstraction on paper, "To Music," with her entire arm, as if conducting an orchestra. Desjardin guided broad, black brush strokes over a sepia-toned picture plane, then placed more delicate, calligraphic splatters of white along the lower edge of the painting.

A completely different approach to acrylics appears in Valerie Ugro's long, narrow, horizontal vista "Mt. Ellen." It too won one of the show's four NVAA Merit Awards. In Ugro's traditional mountain portrait, a forest wilderness in early winter lays at the base of a hulking summit, which is scarred by ski trails already laced with sugary powder.

More than a half-dozen other landscapes also won awards, ranging from the mildly expressionistic "View of the Hump" by Marilyn James, to a light-drenched oil, "Vermont Sunset," by Lee Croghan.

The most puzzling prize is the biggest: Best in Show. After all, Charles Woodard's "Ayrshire Select" is just an archconservative rendition of a red-and-white cow relaxing in her stall. What presumably impressed the jurors was Woodard's technical mastery of pastels. He has blessed the bovine with sensitive, if somewhat sentimental, luminosity. Woodard's composition, which includes steep angles at both lower left and upper right, was probably another point in the work's favor. Beyond that, all one can say about it is: "Yup, she sure looks like a cow."

Craig Wiltse's large oil, entitled "Windswept," wasn't among the prize-winners, but the neo-surreal fantasy forest of gnarled, twisted forms is one of the highlights of the show. Wiltse invented, rather than rendered or reinterpreted, a landscape. His bushy treetops carpet an arboreal world, while the trees beneath seem more like roots than trunks. Ultimately, invention is what elevates engaging landscapes above lackluster ones, and Wiltse's vision is among the most original in the exhibition.

The Jurors' Statement accompanying this exhibition says choices were made in part based on "originality, light, artistic confidence, sincerity and, in some cases, local inspiration." Applying those excellent criteria has produced a memorable show for both the NVAA and the Bryan Memorial Art Gallery.