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Our Top 10 Vermont Art Exhibits of 2022

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Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


"Secret of the Flower" by Patty Hudak - COURTESY
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  • "Secret of the Flower" by Patty Hudak

Regular readers of Seven Days have likely noticed our fondness for lists of seven, because duh. But sometimes reducing a compilation to single digits is really, really hard. So this time we're going with 10!

The top 10 visual art exhibitions of 2022, that is. And still some difficult pruning had to be done. As always, there are two important caveats: The selected exhibitions had to appear in a Vermont gallery and receive a full review in this paper. That meant omitting the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, N.H. But we have to give serious props to our friends across the Connecticut River; all of their exhibitions this past year were absolutely stellar.

Since we can't get to everything in this art-saturated state, we surely missed some worthy shows. But we saw a lot — and we're grateful for the artists, gallerists and supporters who make it all happen.

Here are 10 exhibitions that, at year's end, continue to resonate.

"The World Between the Block and the Paper," Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester

As the somewhat esoteric title hinted, this was an exhibition of wood-block prints. The "world" referred to the myriad possibilities in the moment when carved, inked wood spoke to paper. Specifically, the exhibit featured a Japanese method of printmaking called mokuhanga. Visitors were introduced to an international group called Mokuhanga Sisters, which includes Vermont artist and exhibition cocurator Patty Hudak.

In addition to presenting their own work in vastly different styles, each artist invited a teacher or a student to participate. The total number of prints was a whopping 174. It was a collective testament to the versatility of a timeless art form. Some of the pieces were unframed or even sculptural, showing the surprisingly tensile strength of a seemingly fragile medium.

A captivating installation in the art center's library paid homage to the artists' mentors, as well as artisans who handcraft the traditional tools used in mokuhanga. The distinctively Japanese protocol of mutual respect permeated this exhibition and left an indelible impression on viewers as surely as ink on paper.

Tara Thacker, "Darken," Julian Scott Memorial Gallery, Northern Vermont University-Johnson

"Shadow Baskets (Nocturne)" by Tara Thacker - COURTESY
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  • "Shadow Baskets (Nocturne)" by Tara Thacker

Tara Thacker's works typically consist of fastidiously hand-cut, nearly identical components numbering in the hundreds. The ceramic sculptor calls her process labor-intensive and meditative, and those qualities were amply evident in this exhibit. Thacker's obsessively layered works were hung on the walls or suspended from the ceiling, accompanied by a quartet of prints.

Along with patience and precision, Thacker's inventive materiality elevated this exhibit's wow factor.

Two wall-hung sculptures drew inspiration from birds — or, more to the point, feathers. One that suggested a pair of wings was made of countless thin loops of black matte clay — call it clay bouclé. The other resembled a stretched-out shawl and comprised hundreds of glimmering strips of lead. A large pelt-like piece was made of sticks; some of the wood had been chomped, presumably by beavers. "I just love the bite marks," Thacker told us.

Perhaps with the help of woodland creatures, Thacker transmuted multiple handmade and found mediums into an elegant and remarkably cohesive exhibition.

Roberto Visani, "Form/Reform," Brattleboro Museum & Art Center

"cardboard slave kit, freedman blend" by Roberto Visani - COURTESY
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  • "cardboard slave kit, freedman blend" by Roberto Visani

Brooklyn-based Roberto Visani spent the first two years of the pandemic working on an art project that spanned 19th-century history and 21st-century design technology. He created larger-than-life figures that would sit, stand, kneel or hang on a wall. In a first glance around the gallery, they resembled standard statuary. But a closer examination revealed radical departures: His sculptures are made of cardboard, and most of them display manacles or chains.

Visani researched art historical depictions of enslaved people and, using 3D modeling software and a laser cutter, reconstructed them in fractal form. The pieces were assembled from what he called "cardboard slave kits." Some works are based on real historical figures, such as Bussa, a slave who helped to ignite a revolt in Barbados in 1816.

A more symbolic piece was also the most heart-wrenching: a male figure kneeling, manacled hands in supplication, face tilted upward. Though based on artwork created in 1787, the sculpture brought to mind football quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.

Visani's clever use of a ubiquitous packaging material underscores the foundational principle of slavery: commodified humans as the economic engine of capitalism. This was a deeply moving exhibition.

"Luigi Lucioni: Modern Light," Shelburne Museum

"Village of Stowe, Vermont" by Luigi Lucioni - COURTESY
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  • "Village of Stowe, Vermont" by Luigi Lucioni

Though the museum posted this exhibition online in advance, the in-person show was both more extensive — with 48 paintings, 11 etchings and one printing plate — and more visually spectacular. The survey of landscape, portrait and still-life work by the Italian American painter (1900-1988) was lush.

Lucioni immigrated to the U.S. at age 10 and transformed from a gifted student to a noted New York City artist. Later, he spent considerable time painting en plein air in Vermont, and Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb was an important patron. In 1937, LIFE magazine even declared Lucioni the state's unofficial "painter laureate."

Though his realist style developed in contrast to burgeoning abstract expressionists, Lucioni was "recognizably up to date for his mid-century audiences," writes museum director Tom Denenberg in a book that accompanied this exhibit. The artist was both timeless and timely, Denenberg continues, and captured "the pervasive sense of alienation manifest in international creative circles in the decades that bracketed World War II."

Whatever his place in art history, Lucioni's oeuvre remains a pleasure to witness. His landscapes are masterworks of precision, his lighting incandescent. For admirers of skillful brushwork, this exhibition was simply swoon-worthy.

Shelley Reed and Randal Thurston, Bundy Modern in Waitsfield

Untitled cut-paper installation by Randal Thurston on entry wall - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Untitled cut-paper installation by Randal Thurston on entry wall

In the middle of a fecund Vermont summer, Boston-area artists Shelley Reed and Randal Thurston hung paintings and cut-paper installations, respectively, in stark black and white. Their works complemented both the clean lines of the midcentury gallery and each other's. Even without color, the exhibit was a visual feast.

Reed works exclusively with two oil paints — ivory black and titanium zinc white — and mixes a range of grays for each canvas. Every painting presents a mashup of elements in paintings from centuries past — a bouquet here, a leg of mutton there — but using Reed's minimal palette. The paintings are no less lavish, such as an immense table groaning with food. Working in a scale she called "operatic," Reed aims to "create a new narrative," she explained. Thus, a tableau of fresh-caught sea creatures might speak to "our unending appetite for not just discovery but for use," Reed said.

Thurston works only in matte black: silhouettes of flora and fauna, meticulously cut with an X-Acto knife from dense paper. White walls provide the contrast. In the Bundy, his cutouts shimmied up the walls like vines drunk on summer. His installation in the main gallery was a matrix of knobby branches; silhouetted birds perched upon it here and there, each representing a local species.

This sophisticated pairing offered both arresting beauty and something much deeper.

"More Than an Object: The Contemporary Still Life," BCA Center in Burlington

"Breakfast" by Zachary P. Stephens - COURTESY
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  • "Breakfast" by Zachary P. Stephens

Riffing on and contrasting with a classic art historical trope — a table laden with fruit, vases, linens, etc. — the group exhibition "More Than an Object" pulled perceptions of the still life into the 21st century. Nine artists contributed painting, mixed-media sculpture, ceramics, digital animation, installation and photography. Some of the works employed the form in the service of commentary — serious or wry.

A couple of artists adhered, more or less, to still-life conventions: Susan Abbott with a kind-of-realist but utterly modern scene in vivid colors; Christopher T. Terry with determinedly pedestrian arrangements, a range of nebulous hues, and an exquisite, meditative expression of light and shadow.

Other artists shoved boundaries aside altogether. Ori Gersht's photos are not exactly trompe l'oeil, but they certainly fooled the eye; disturbingly, his pastel-hued ceramic subjects seemed the victims of violence. Photographer Zachary P. Stephens takes a playful approach to the still life with large-scale color pictures of mundane home life. They suggest chaos more than stillness, such as a close-up breakfast-table scene replete with spilled Froot Loops, leftover pizza and a curious cat.

Sculptors dispensed with the picture plane: Christina Erives scattered painted ceramic elements of a Mexican meal on the wall. William Ransom stuck a machete in an angular mound of white sugar. And Oona Gardner's 3D ceramic wall-hung piece sure looked like a uterus.

All of the artists revisited the idea of "object," and object as subject, in inventive and thoughtful ways.

Mie Yim, "Fluid Boundaries," Brattleboro Museum & Art Center

"Gooble, Gobble" by Mie Yim - COURTESY
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  • "Gooble, Gobble" by Mie Yim

Mie Yim's artwork is indisputably strange. In her exhibit of a dozen large paintings and nine smaller "Quarantine Drawings," the South Korea-born, New York City-based artist challenged the eye and emotions. Her candy colors and soft-focus biomorphic forms were playfully appealing, like stuffed animals or cartoon characters. But the subjects' large, glossy black eyes, appearing singly rather than in pairs, were unsettling. When you look at a Yim painting, the painting looks back.

As curator Sarah Freeman suggested in her gallery statement: "Yim is clearly comfortable with discomfort."

The dialectic of creepy and cute made this exhibition utterly magnetic. So did Yim's skill with her mediums, whether oil paint on canvas or pastel on paper, and her forward way with color. In her fertile imagination, mixing abstraction, surrealism and figuration yields portraits of mutant beings we hope never to see IRL. Think repurposed intestines, misplaced teeth and sort-of-human eyes that seemed to follow a viewer around the room.

Yim herself writes that she employs shapes, lines and color "that gel into metaphysical portraits of pathos, anxiety and pugnacious hilarity."

Trying to categorize this artist's work is futile; her visual vocabulary is fiercely individual.

"When the Well Is Dry," the Current in Stowe

"Snow Goose" by Acacia Johnson - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Snow Goose" by Acacia Johnson

To anyone concerned about the state of the Earth, this exhibition provoked sadness, anger, outrage, fear. Photographs by 11 international visual storytellers eloquently showed what we have inflicted on nature and nature's response.

The exhibition's title was drawn from a Benjamin Franklin quote: "When the well is dry, we know the worth of water." Though written centuries before the term "climate crisis" was coined, the aphorism suggests that humans have long understood that natural resources are finite — and squandered them anyway.

Since fires, sweltering heat, floods, droughts and destructive storms are the stuff of daily headlines, the Current exhibition held few surprises. But it offered a valuable global perspective.

A trio of images by Iranian photographer Solmaz Daryani documented the death of Lake Urmia. Once the planet's sixth-largest saltwater lake, supporting both a thriving ecosystem and a thriving local economy, it is now dessicated.

Four large prints by Alaskan photographer Acacia Johnson told other stories about water — frozen or melting — and the struggles of northern Indigenous communities. From California, Allison Dinner's print showed what the apocalypse looks like when it arrives in your backyard.

Some artists in the exhibition, including Canadian Edward Burtynsky, are world-renowned. Others were likely unfamiliar to most viewers. But names were secondary to the devastating content of their images.

"Interplay," Kents' Corner State Historic Site in Calais

"Mother and Child" sculpture by Clark Derbes; "Dream 022721.001" by Drew Clay - COURTESY
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  • "Mother and Child" sculpture by Clark Derbes; "Dream 022721.001" by Drew Clay

This annual exhibition is always a pleasure to witness and yet a bit frustrating to cover because there is so much of it. Every nook and cranny in this charming old building is packed with works by Vermont artists, thanks to cocurators Nel Emlen, Allyson Evans and David Schutz. This year's iteration, the 15th, was arguably the most vivacious to date.

"Interplay" referred to the relationships between pieces. And following a period of pandemic isolation, Emlen told us, the curators "intentionally looked at work that was joyous." It showed, particularly with color. From bold abstractions by Sara Katz to meditative pastel canvases by Cynthia Kirkwood to richly saturated pigment-ink monotypes by Drew Clay, the imagery popped in every room.

The curators sometimes paired works of similar color values, doubling their visual vitality; elsewhere they played with contrasts. The idea of interplay also manifested in thematically linked subsets of shape, pattern, materiality or concept. Clark Derbes' painted polygons, for instance, were simpatico with a number of 2D pieces. Printmaker Rachel Gross' masterful geometric compositions both commanded attention and complemented other artworks. Pamela Smith's magical-realist folk art sweetly contrasted with harder-edged works and certainly answered the call for joy.

Perhaps more than most exhibitions, the Kent show illustrates what thoughtful curation can achieve. In this case, Emlen, Evans and Schutz succeeded in a subtler mission: to observe how well disparate individuals can play together.

Emilia Olson,"Painting With the Past," Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro

"Birth of Venus With Toys" by Emilia Olson - COURTESY
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  • "Birth of Venus With Toys" by Emilia Olson

No one looks at a 15th-century Italian painting and thinks, SpongeBob SquarePants! No one except Plainfield artist Emilia Olson, that is. Her takeoff on Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" — "Birth of Venus With Toys" — replaces the supporting figures of the original with the perpetually excited cartoon star, as well as Bert and Ernie of "Sesame Street" renown.

This was one of five large paintings at the Highland Center exhibit in which Olson indulged her love of Renaissance paintings and her fondness for childhood toys. They were startling for their ambitious scale, refreshing humor and flawless execution. Helpfully, a sheet of paper hung alongside each of them contained an image of the classic work and Olson's commentary.

Not only did Olson revisit art history and her own past, this exhibition itself was a sort of resurrection: After graduating with an art degree, she had put painting aside for 15 years. Highland Center curator Maureen O'Connor Burgess persuaded the artist to begin again. In turn, Olson pulled older, unfinished artworks out of a box in her parents' home.

Some of these paintings, which Olson reworked, played off another of her obsessions: cheesy greeting cards. But the larger paintings commanded justifiable attention.

"Painting With the Past" suggested Olson is out of the box for good.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Counting on Art | Remembering Exhibits We Loved in 2022"