EXHIBIT: "Coffee Culture Exhibit," a juried show of works by artists from coffee-growing countries. Second Floor Gallery, Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts, Burlington. Through November 5.
ARTWORK:"Panjachel with Lilies" by Felix
In an unusual public/corporate anniversary exhibition at the Firehouse Center for Visual Arts, Burlington City Arts and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters are both celebrating 25 years of existence. The "Coffee Culture Exhibit," running through November 5, presents art in several media along with ongoing film, lecture and coffee-tasting opportunities. Visitors can also see second-floor displays about fair-trade coffee and documentary photographs from Latino coffee-farming towns. All of this is designated "Coffee Culture Month." Most of the show's works originate in Central America and Mexico, and the art-and-joe partnership is an aesthetically flavorful and robust brew.
"Panjachel with Lilies" is among seven 5-by-7-inch canvasses by a Guatemalan artist identified only as Felix. Each of his little paintings focuses on the back of a woman with a long, dark braid, like Frida Kahlo with her back to the audience. She wears geometrically patterned blouses that are different in each scene.
Lush modulations of white and golden yellow in the flower petals of "Panjachel with Lilies" contrast with the finely honed lines in Felix's portrayal of textiles. "Patzicia with Lilies" positions the same centrally placed woman at a loom, cheerfully referencing a weaving tradition that predates sweatshops in Guatemala. Like that of textiles, Felix's palette is reduced to a few bright hues, without much variation in intensity or value. Names in the pieces' titles are taken from indigenous villages in the region from which Felix hails.
Another single-moniker artist identified as Peigna offers three heavily textured, mixed-media works painted with blends of "coffee grounds and extracts." The artist seems to delight in texture for its own sake, but Peigna - actually Jean-Marie Peigna, a coffee painter of international renown who died in 2005 - was also an astute abstract expressionist. His coffee media impart unique colors, including rusty reds and an array of rich browns. "Curbas de Nival" has crackled surfaces with hefty blotches of brown floating on a white field. "À l'aube du Nuean Café" reveals a deeper, more naturalistic space. It's like an abstract house with shapes hulking above and below a curved, ruddy roof. The work's pale yet built-up background is crusty with coffee-ground textures. Peigna's paintings are all of modest size, focusing viewers' eyes on their minimalist forms and expressive textures.
Patricia Erickson is an expatriate American who moved to Nicaragua in 1987. Her untitled acrylic figurative abstractions, all 18-by-24 inches, combine the vibrancy and simple shapes of Central American folk art with the compositional sophistication of contemporary fine art. One of the works portrays a man in a crimson boat hauling in a net full of fish. The figure pulls at an angle in the piece's upper left area, and sinewy blue, turquoise and emerald-green lines describe the catch. Then Erickson painted white lines of complex, jagged netting over the central aqueous background, capturing lively rhythmic movement along with the bountiful harvest.
The most impressive sculpture in the show is a wall-mounted mask, several feet in diameter, from the state of Guerrero in Mexico. The piece was actually used in "Holy Week" carnival celebrations. It's a bullish head festooned with a dozen ram, goat and bull horns, equipped with mirrors for eyes and, of course, wildly painted. Unlike sculptures aimed at tourists, which appear elsewhere in the show, this mask's surfaces have a wonderful patina that attests to its authenticity.
It's unfortunate that "Coffee Culture" and Church Street's café cliques can't coincide and commingle, owing to inclement weather. But it's good that coffee at the Firehouse will lure folks in to look at the art. Perhaps more Vermont arts organizations should plan anniversaries in conjunction with those of popular businesses - especially ones with tasty products.