Windham Art Gallery's Metamorphosis:
Art is everywhere. Brattleboro is known throughout the region and the country as a vibrant and successful arts community. Without even trying, you can find world-class visual arts, film, music, theater and literary arts. In fact, if you wanted to avoid them, you might have a hard time. What you will not find is a gallery designed exclusively to attract affluent collectors. The high culture in Brattleboro is decidedly democratic.
Perhaps that is why we have been able to support a cooperative art space for 17 years and counting. The Windham Art Gallery, begun in 1989 under the auspices of the Arts Council of Windham County, is the oldest continuously operating cooperative gallery in New England. As a nonprofit run primarily by members, it makes space for emerging and established artists to commingle, and welcomes younger artists and students. Recent changes at the gallery highlight its importance as a community asset for both artists and art lovers.
One of the latest alterations at WAG is right under your feet as soon as you walk in. The new ash wood floor, installed in February, gave WAG an instant makeover and offered an occasion for gallery stakeholders to come together with a renewed sense of purpose. The floor represents a cooperative effort by several volunteers, member artists, the steering committee, gallery coordinator Pamela Mandell and two major donors: Howard Mathison of Main Street Millwork in Greenfield, Mass., who donated the flooring itself; and an anonymous friend of the gallery, who donated $3,000 toward the renovation. This project is part of a "new energy," according to Mandell, who moved to the area from Provincetown, Mass., in 2005 and has since been amazed by the collaborative spirit of both WAG and the larger community.
Other recent changes are not visually obvious but partake of the same energy. Right after the new flooring was put in, WAG hosted the high school student art show for the first time in several years. For June, the members invited outside artists and writers to participate in a collaborative show. In the fall, the gallery will invite children to participate in art activities. A chartered bus trip to Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art is also planned. Over the years, most months have featured themed group exhibits, but members are revisiting even that standard practice.
The "Exquisite Corpse" show, slated for September, is a good example. For this exhibit, member artists will work in sets of three or four to create exquisite corpses. Inspired, perhaps, by the old parlor game Consequences (a written round-robin story in which writers do not know what has come before), the practice of making a cadavre exquis was developed by the French surrealists in the early 20th century. In the visual version of this method, three artists independently create the head, torso and legs of a figure. Participating WAG artists will create exquisite corpses for this exhibit, and the pieces will be sold (perhaps by auction or raffle) as a benefit for the gallery. The show promises to be an exciting and humorous process for both artists and viewers.
It is tempting to see the gallery itself as a kind of exquisite corpse -- a collaborative effort of many different artistic styles, personalities and points of view that mysteriously end up as a beautiful creation for the public to enjoy. But this metaphor goes only so far: galleries do not stay afloat on surrealist principles. WAG is a massive organizational effort that would not exist without the profound, extended commitment of a large group of volunteers and members -- people who have, in the words of long-time volunteer Bettina Krampetz, "a connection of the heart" with this amazing endeavor. Asked about the current changes at WAG, Krampetz -- whose late husband, Norman, was a founding member of the group -- replied, "Norm may be an angel up there on the tin ceiling grinning ear to ear at the transformation. He would be thrilled!
Perhaps the most exciting change at WAG is the featured artist program. While themed group shows will continue, the gallery will showcase several artists in solo exhibits over the next year, including Stuart Copans, Judy Hawkins, Carolyn Nelson, Barbara Mueller and Lauren Watrous. The first such exhibit opens this month, featuring Leonard Ragouzeos.
Ragouzeos, who formerly did abstract work in vivid color, now works almost exclusively in India ink on non-absorbent, synthetic paper. This show will include several huge representational pieces, such as a 5'x9' pear, as well as tiny 4-3/4" square miniatures displayed in CD jewel cases.
Reading that paragraph, it might occur to you that Ragouzeos is interested in extremes. This show will not change your mind.
Ragouzeos' adventures in realistic imagery began in 2002, with some drawings of the World Trade Center. ("They're nice, but they're not good," he claimed.) From here, he moved on to "depressing images of soldiers," and then some "ugly" moribund figures that appear to have the artist's face (sans spectacles). While fruit and vegetable images reveal the 'life' side of the death-life coin, there is profound irony in rendering still life, which traditionally celebrates fertility and abundance, in black. The lack of color in the giant pear strips the celebration from the study, forcing us to consider surface and shape apart from the juicy associations we normally have with pears. This fruit is not inviting you to take a bite. Like death in the real world, black in Ragouzeos' art is the great democratizer. "Color has its own language," Ragouzeos said. "Black allows for an abstracted or metaphoric level of understanding and interpretation."
Black serves another, related, purpose as well. "I promised myself only black and white, because I think we're in a bad time -- a dark time, socially, politically," said Ragouzeos. While the work is not "politically expressive," its dark tone is on pitch with Ragouzeos' sense of the current political atmosphere.
But it is the scale of these pieces that really draws the viewer toward them -- I will not say 'into' them, because it is the reflective, non-absorbent surface that engages our attention as we get close. Ragouzeos works to create "something about the image that is strong from a distance." But upon approaching the piece, the viewer sees only "textures on paper, shapes on paper." From Ragouzeos' point of view, "it has to be made an object" in order to "maintain the abstract moral obligation."
Whether you ascribe to an aesthetic that requires art to have this "object quality" or not, you will find that these pieces succeed on Ragouzeos' terms. As you approach, instead of seeing a head of garlic or a pair of peppers, you see streaks, pools, blots, specks, scratches and soft, gray strokes. And it is your mind's transition between the two extremes -- the huge, recognizable, three-dimensional image and the shiny, repellent surface alternately dotted, smeared and thickly glazed with black ink -- that completes the artist's black twist on the classic still life. By artistically objectifying the sources of basic nourishment, these pieces call us to rethink our relationship to what we consume, to how we live and to life itself.
If you like extremes, compare Ragouzeos' work to that of August's featured artist, Judy Hawkins, who paints vibrantly colored, luminous landscapes. By featuring individual artists from a very diverse roster of members, WAG turns up the artistic volume. Showcasing the amazing talent of each artist, one by one, is an exciting innovation that can only help the gallery and its members thrive.
Copyright 2007, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont