Writing about the annual Art at the Kent exhibition is both a pleasure and an exercise in frustration: the former because every piece of art on display at Kents’ Corner State Historic Site in Calais is appealing; The latter because there are far too many pieces in this limited space to acknowledge. But we can’t complain about such a cheerful convention of creativity. The 2022 edition, “Interplay,” brilliantly brings together a variety of works by 20 Vermont artists.
The Kent has plenty of space: a maze of small rooms and, up a steep flight of stairs, a spacious former ballroom. The building gracefully shows its age with layers of faded wallpaper, exposed slats and windows and doors that first opened in the 19th century. This backdrop is a supporting player in the exhibition’s pageant – a necessarily short one, as the venue is not winterized. The gentle blend of old and new is reminiscent of a line from William Shakespeare The storm: “What has passed is prologue.”
Co-curators Nel Emlen and Allyson Evans, along with state curator David Schutz, excel at arranging contemporary artworks both indoors and outdoors at their beloved historical site, finding purpose for every nook and cranny. But Interplay, Kent’s 15th show, is perhaps their most vibrant compilation yet.
“When we collected works, we looked for bridges between different pieces,” says Emlen Seven days. “We paid more attention to that this time [than usual].” Battered by COVID-19 and “feeling the weight of the world,” she added, “we deliberately looked at work that brings joy.”
Still, it took the trio some time to get to the show’s title. “We didn’t want to tell people how to feel,” Emlen noted.
The works of art do this well on their own – especially with color. From bold abstractions by Sara Katz to meditative pastels by Cynthia Kirkwood to richly saturated pigment ink monotypes by Drew Clay, imagery pops up in every space. The curators sometimes pair works of similar color value, doubling their visual vitality and creating vigorous contrasts elsewhere.
However, the idea of interplay goes deeper than hue and manifests itself in thematically linked subsets of form, pattern, materiality or concept. For example, a painting by James Secor entitled The Purposeful Structures Hold Us Apart hangs on a mantelpiece in one room. The distorted triangular and rectilinear shapes in the semi-figurative dreamscape appear to communicate with Clark Derbes’ projecting carved wood piece, “Fractal Time Traveler”, perched on a pedestal below.
The curatorial decision to distribute each artist’s work throughout the spaces provides frequent opportunities to view their dialogues. Derbes’ painted polygons are simpatico with a number of 2D pieces across Kent. Printmaker Rachel Gross’s masterful geometric compositions on paper or molded plywood complement other artworks while attracting attention.
Gross represents a smaller subset within “Interplay”: Relatives. In a room on the second floor, her engravings and woodcuts are juxtaposed with a mixed-media installation by her daughter Eva Sturm-Gross. The latter, “Eschaton of Leviathan & the Birdshead Messiah,” consists of four floor-to-ceiling scrolls of paper with two suspended banners hanging perpendicular to them at either end, forming a semi-enclosure. Printed in black and red with esoteric symbols, including the ouroboros, the installation is graphically captivating and impeccably crafted.
Seating is another subset in this exhibit, and some of it is LOL funny. Timothy Clark’s armless Windsor chair, painted robin’s egg blue, sits demurely in front of a fireplace and reflects the color in a trio of Katz paintings on the mantelpiece. In contrast, Clark’s “Big Red Chair” on the lawn is too big even for Papa Bear.
Not to be outdone, Mark Ragonese presents a very Twisted driftwood high chair. Back inside, a long black bench designed by George Sawyer shoots up aggressively at one end, scaring off any potential sitters.
Pamela Smith embodies her own category: folk art with magical realism. Charming and ingeniously refined, her vibrant, beautifully rendered figurative paintings and papier-mâché sculptures certainly live up to the curatorial call for delight.
Josh and Marta Bernbaum contribute the only glass works in the exhibition, in forms that demonstrate the versatility of the medium. Josh’s blown, carved and sculpted pieces, like the curvy “Introverre/decolétage,” are simply exquisite.
In Marta’s “Heavy Necklace” series, teardrop-shaped “jewels” the size of paperweights are strung together and arranged on pedestals. Looking inside, a viewer sees slightly distorted photographs illustrating their titles. “Dissolution of Democracy,” for example, features depressingly accurate images that we really don’t want to see. This necklace, if worn, would be a real albatross.
The single dark note in this year’s Kent exhibition underscores their mission: to observe how well we can play together.