XVII. BigTown Blog: Homage to André Breton at BigTown Gallery

CHARLES RUSSELL, Professor and Associate Director; Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, Director of the American Studies Program, is the author of many texts, including Groundwater: A Century of Art by Self-Taught And Outsider Artists (Prestel, 2011).

The current exhibition at BigTown Gallery in Vergennes is inspired by a display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris of a reconstruction of the surrealist André Breton’s studio which featured a dense hanging of works by masters of modern art, tribal masks, found objects, and popular culture decorative items–all of which could provoke, for Breton, the ideal moment of surreality in which the viewer’s unconscious responses transformed normal experience into a heightened sensation of the totality of being.

The Vergennes exhibit is not an homage to surrealism. Rather, it is an affirmation of Breton’s eye, his ability to recognize the aesthetic power–the truths and beauty–within visual objects found throughout our lives. Each work at BigTown offers an arrested moment of awareness of pure visual pleasure, yet resonates with deeper meaning. And as in Breton’s constructed environment, the entire gallery acts as a total work of art in which each piece is in dialogue with all the others. The space is dense with some seventy objects, yet they are positioned with a balance and eloquence that creates a sense of quietude despite the passion evident within the works.

Masterful works by established artists–Bhakti Ziek, Mark Goodwin, Alison Weld, Paul Bowen, and Varujan Boghosian–demonstrate sophisticated personal aesthetic statements while inviting strong viewer responses. They are surrounded by tribal masks and figures evoking spiritual rituals of life and death and by a host of vernacular objects from daily life: toys, surveyor’s tools, furniture and home decorations that provide both visual delight and psychological resonance beyond the mere necessities that brought them into existence.

We move from work to work, noting formal and thematic connections that seem to awaken latent dimensions of meaning. The simple elegance of a vintage Glove Dryer rises before us as a hand of greeting or warning; across the gallery, the vertical hand sculpture of Boghosian’s Orpheus wields a musical instrument as a weapon or celebration of art. Children’s animal-shaped toys and small animal figurines and primitive sculpture, as well as mysterious human figurative objects (Townley’s Maime, a Cézanne-inspired anonymous Woman with Dog, even a Victorian Pocket-Watch Stand) have all a subdued, insistent presence that suggests they could merge from–or find home in–a number of psychic realms. The bronze sculptures of Paul Bowen, as well as his wood Rondo and Hugh Townley’s Study Three could be read as totems or shrine figures in this ethnographically rich room, while Peter Moriarty’s gelatin-silver photo print Passport Mask appropriates an Ibo mask image that fits well with its distant cousins on these walls.

The minimalist vocabulary of Lou Fink’s painting and Mark Goodwin’s paintings, sculpture, and Shelf Ensemble succeed in quietly evoking the sustained moment of beauty that we often seek in art. And across the room, the richly-hued, expressive abstractions of Alison Weld proclaim that art provides as well an experience of plenitude, a vision of intensity and totality of mind and the senses. Her blatant juxtaposition of two apparently opposing aesthetics–an intensely-worked gestural oil painting abutted by a panel of stretched fabric of commercial design–dramatizes the conflict–and the resolution–between one’s deeply-felt personal life-world and our placement within a complex and diverse cultural realm. The paintings work as did Breton’s collection and this Homage to André Breton at BigTown Gallery, by joyously calling into play the multitude of aesthetic voices that speak through the art and objects of our lives.