BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) opens the new year with Open Call NNE (North-Northeast), its annual juried exhibit that showcases established, mid-career, and emerging New York State and New England artists working in all media.
The exhibit, which runs from Jan. 9 through March 12, features 12 artists from Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont will display work in various media including painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramic, and textiles.
In addition to NNE, BMAC is presenting “Recovering the Body” from Jan. 9 until Feb. 8. In this collaborative painting series, Craig Stockwell and Jon L. McAuliffe seek to trace those impulses of “the war to end all wars,” through the life and tragic death of the explorer George Mallory, and to the present moment, where the search remains.
An opening reception for both exhibits will be held at the museum on 10 Vernon St. on Saturday, Jan. 9, at 11 a.m.
Open Call NNE is curated by Richard Klein, the exhibitions director at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., who writes in his notes for this exhibit at the BMAC webpage: “This year’s open call drew over 300 responses from every corner of the Northeast. The subsequent curatorial process was guided by my observations and thoughts on the originality, technical proficiency, and depth of content of the works submitted.”
Klein is a man squarely at the center of the contemporary art scene. “I have worked at Aldrich now 20 years,” he says, “and the museum itself has recently had its 50 anniversary, which makes it one of the oldest institutions in the country dedicated to contemporary art.”
At Aldrich, Klein curates 12 to 16 exhibitions a year, varying in scale. Besides being the museum’s exhibitions director, Klein is also kept busy with a variety of administrative duties. On top of this, Klein is often invited to guest curate or jury works from other institutions and museums.
He is glad to do this, but tries to keep such outside work to a minimum, agreeing to around one or two a year.
Yet such freelancing can even pay off for his home museum.
“Sometimes, I discover work in shows I have juried that I then invite to exhibits I am putting together at Aldrich,” he says.
This is the second year in a row that Klein has juried the NNE show for BMAC.
“The museum’s chief curator, Mara Williams, called me about three years ago to see if I was interested,” says Klein. “I had never met her, but knew of her work with BMAC, and she knew of mine. She was casting her net for a new juror for the show so got in touch with me. I greatly enjoyed working with all the people at BMAC, and apparently they enjoyed working with me because they invited me back this year.”
The work was blind-judged, and only one artist is a repeat from last year.
“Overall I didn’t recognize any artist from last year’s crop,” says Klein. “Oddly, I did not choose a single artist from my base in Connecticut.”
The submissions came from an open call and, of the 302 applicants, Klein found it relatively easy to limit his choice down to 30.
“But then my work became difficult,” he says. “The amount of artists we can include in the show is limited by the space in the gallery which is not that large. The pieces need breathing room for full potential to shine.
“We were limited by the footprint of the gallery space dedicated to this show. There are practical questions about space a curator always must address, such as how many pieces of each artist’s fare are needed for a viewer’s understanding of what he or she may be up to with the work. In this year we have one artist with a sole piece exhibited, the rest have multiple works.”
Klein finds it interesting that what he often chooses when jurying are those works that stay in his memory and that he returns to think about the next day.
“Here, the process did not allow me to have limitless time (everything has to be chosen in one day),” he says, “but at the end of that long day certain works did stick out for me. I hadn’t forgotten them and felt I needed to go back to them, like a little itch that must be scratched.”
Klein examined the submissions digitally.
“That is the way it is usually done these days,” he explains. “I have through the years developed the knack of looking and understanding what the art will be in person through this admittedly limiting process. It may not be the best method of curating, but I have developed the means to translate fairly well a computer screen into real life.”
What Klein looked for when selecting works for Open Call NNE was originality and diversity.
“Since I have done curating shows for a while, I have found that I am not so much interested in a work of art per se, as much as how an artist ticks, that is, why did someone make something like this. I like art that shows what a person does is a process of learning, and the art itself reveals a quest for knowledge. I am attracted to pieces that do not make one feel comfortable.”
Not withstanding trends in art, Klein looks for artists who are, as he calls them, singular.
“If I have a prejudice, it is that the artist has a singular process of what they do,” he says. “I have grouped the artists into categories in my museum notes — the subjective, the objective, the social, the repurposed — but that is more about structure than similarities among them.”
But what Klein is looking for you could not call “originality” exactly.
“It is very difficult for artists to be original in this day and age,” he says. “It is nearly impossible to make something someone has never seen before. All the artists in this show recycle culture in one way or another. Everything relates to something in the past. What an artist does is re-invent the past through art. The closest we get to original these days is hybrid work, which is the very basis of modernism itself.
“To make an artist singular for me, what I look for is artistic skill, and a certain vision expressed well in the work.”
Klein was finally able to settle upon 12 artists for NNE at BMAC.
For shows at the Aldrich, Klein can select pieces, not only from the whole of the United States, but the entire world. So it seemed appropriate to ask: Are there any features that make New England/New York artists distinctive.
“Probably not,” says Klein. “Nonetheless, I do see artists, for instance working with New England landscape painting, who demonstrate what I call a Northeastern sensibility, a sense of place picked up through the surroundings which make the work distinctive. One can sense all throughout the show at BMAC a subtle reference to traditional New England culture.”
Klein feels that this strong sense of place is particular to each state in the region.
Klein notes that even New England varies a lot.
“Here in Connecticut, we are in the orbit of New York City,” he says. “Our life is more crowded and diverse, with large cities nearby like Bridgeport bringing its own urban problems. Every other day it seems as if someone is getting shot on our streets. In contrast, Vermont is a very different place.”
“I think a healthy trend in 21st century art is that artists now seem to need and want to define ‘place’ for themselves, which they do by connecting with local history and environmental concerns.”
Unlike in the past, when big metropolises like Manhattan were resolutely the mecca for artists, now Klein sees artist communities thriving in so many places.
“NYC is so expensive, and San Fransisco — forget it!” he exclaims.
Such economic realities are forcing artists in different ways to base themselves in small and middle-sized cities.
“I recently was in Tulsa (Okla.), for instance, and was struck by how it has a really interesting art scene,” says Klein.
Although now considered something of an economically dead city, Detroit has attracted scores of artists who are now moving there, attracted not only by the low rents, but to capitalize on the gritty character of the city.
“What is important is for an artist to find a sense of community,” says Klein. “With the Internet and other new forms of communication, artists can thrive far from the traditional centers of art. I find it an exciting new world.”