NORTH BENNINGTON IS TRANSFORMED INTO AN OUTDOOR SCULPTURE PARK
“We’re going on an art hunt — you can model with the sculptures and I’ll send the pictures to the editor!” is how I enticed the kids away from video games to see this exhibition. It worked!
After arriving in North Bennington, Vermont and engaging in a fact-finding session of sculpture location and photo documentation, I met up with the very straightforward and welcoming sculptor and exhibition organizer Joe Chirchirillo.
Later, when I asked my son what was most interesting about the exhibition he said, “I liked pretending the giant lobster was going to eat me.” Engaging in dramatic play with “Coppa Lobsta,” a 12-foot-long, carved, reclaimed-wood-and-copper construction by Washington, D.C.-based wildlife sculptor Charles Bergen is how my son finds art’s relevance.
Many other sculptures were transformed into theatrical props by the kids’ comical pretend play. “Sprung,” a group of five purple asparagus shoots, each at different heights, by Vermont Arts Exchange artist Kristen Blaker, added to the Suessian/Alice-in-Wonderland tone of the exhibition, and became pretend lunch.
Bergen and Blaker’s brand of realism contrasted smoothly with the abstract and conceptual compositions of Caroline Bugby and Lisa Barthelson.
Bugby’s “Summer Something,” constructed at Salem Art Works in upstate New York, is a whimsical 13-foot-tall, colorful steel narrative that looks like a crazy cupcake on a stick; it tells a surreal story of where “breakfast mutates into dancing forms.” Barthelson’s “Frenzied” is the work that called me to North Bennington in the first place, becaming a physical metaphor for the structurally chaotic trip with three children.
A master at building up universal narratives about intimate subjects with found objects and symbolical arrangements, Barthelson, based in Rutland, Mass., always delivers intriguing assemblages. Her work is mature and intellectual but never supercilious. The signature quality of her sculptures is a balanced and elegant blending of soft and hard properties. Talking about “Frenzied,” Chirchirillo commented, “I thought the thing was going to fall apart, but it’s strong.” I reminded him: “That’s Lisa; her work reflects her personality.”
Chirchirillo nodded with understanding as we moved on to look at his own work, “Global Cooling Device,” an enormous kinetic construction made of cast cement and recycled metal machine parts. Unlike Barthelson, Chirchirillo doesn’t build up fragile-looking constructions, yet these two artists are remarkably similar in their process: both transform easily accessible and inexpensive materials into expressive forms.
This inclusive and sincere direction is the tone of the Annual North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show. Now in its 17th year, the exhibition is a labor of love for Chirchirillo, who took curatorial leadership two years ago.
Organizing large-scale, nationally broad yet locally supported, sculpture shows is not a new venture for Chirchirillo. In the 1980s, he was one of the many young Manhattan and Brooklyn artists with a do-it-yourself approach who assembled exhibitions in abandoned industrial buildings and neglected urban lots.
Today he applies what he learned in New York to the North Bennington setting. He sends out a national open call. His selection criteria are uncomplicated: if you are a professional working artist with an exhibition history and have work that is ready to exhibit, you’re in.
Artists collaborate with Chirchirillo during site placement, and the community supports the exhibition by offering outdoor show spaces, volunteer help and resources.
A DIVERSE OFFERING
The key word is diversity; artists arrive with varying levels of achievement and skill and at different stages in their careers. Chirchirillo believes that an egalitarian understanding makes for an encouraging atmosphere.
Paul Angiolillo, whose “Word Processors” — another example of sculptural realism — is a scaled-up representation of common school pencils and erasers carved out of wood, expressed his appreciation for the show’s balanced representation of work that explores creative use of common media.Bill Botzow transformed earth-bound materials — wood from the privet bush and locust tree — into a deeply thoughtful place of containment. His “Private Records” is something you do not touch; cut thorny privet is his metaphor for kept secrets.
While the kids learned to avoid “Private Records,” the familiar “Word Processors” was a very kid-popular offering for theatrical engagement. “You can’t do that, it might break!” I yelled. “If it’s going to break it shouldn’t be outside!” was my son’s annoyed reply.
Engagement with Angiolillo’s and Botzow’s pieces raised the concept of object-ness: these works of art are objects, and as such convey specific conditions and energies while encouraging interaction. Not fully engaging with them negates their purpose.
The kids also interacted heavily with Matthew Burke’s partly-kinetic, mixed hardwood and metal/mixed-process construction, “Folding + Asking,” a conceptual piece with a vintage-looking construction inspired by the philosophy of writer Rudolf Steiner. Burke is an associate professor of art and sculpture at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. When he heard about the outdoor sculpture show, he decided to drive northeast from Lawrence to install his work in North Bennington.
“Folding + Asking,” fundamentally about engineering and architecture with its multiple layers of circular forms on springs, plays with the notion of overlapping conditions: “The past we inherit, the present we are called to act and the future is determined by our actions.”
Phil Thorne’s beautifully constructed fluid composition “Second Prelude,” its wing-like shape protecting an orb within, seems too precious to be outdoors. His work explores the spatial relationship between flat planes and lines — their intersections, layering and movement. It’s about precise craftsmanship and poetic placement showing organic/mechanical symbiosis.
J. Fatima Martins