The materials used in Catherine Hall's current exhibition at the Castleton Downtown Gallery in Rutland read like a shopping list for an art-supply store: papier-mâché, encaustic, glass, paint, rice paper, dye, wax, resin, silk, plaster, wood, horn, glass beads. As this list suggests, the works in her plainly titled "Plaster, Paper, Paint" are disparate, but they do constitute a cohesive body of work. What they have in common is the exploration of each medium's materiality.
The four-room Castleton Downtown Gallery is a reclaimed cellar with an exposed stone foundation. Normally the space feels earthy and intimate, but a wall-hung work in the entry suggests a more funereal quality. It also immediately introduces the viewer to the slightly disturbing, tongue-in-cheek line of work for which this Burlington artist is known. "Oval With Head" (14 by 11 by 3 inches) is a waxy yellow baby-doll head, enhanced with papier-mâché and encaustic and mounted on a wood oval. That's right, mounted like a deer head. With its matted hair and cherubic mouth, this might be a young child looking out from the underworld, and the fact that it's mounted is macabre. Yet in Hall's hands, the piece is also very funny.
Across the room, Hall's 60-by-44-inch oil on canvas "Net" captivates with more formal properties: primary colors and strong lines overlaid by thin, lacy ones. Bold, black, vertical lines form two-dimensional architecture, suggesting a building or a bridge; textured, spidery lines crawl down the painting, as if weaving the titular net. The work ensnares viewers visually, and creates an optical momentum that engages us to look and look again. The net is like a mask through which we peer into the painting and see more deeply still.
Turn the corner into the next room, and Hall switches the mood — and the medium — completely. Here are six delicate wall sculptures made of rice paper, dye and wax, which provide a pleasing respite from the drama elsewhere in the exhibit. In her artist statement, Hall says the paper works were inspired by memories of working in a textile mill in her native England during school holidays. "I was especially fascinated by seeing hanks of yarn submerged into vats of dye," she writes.
The piece titled "Unryu Fall" (29 by 39 by 8 inches) began as a horizontal arrangement of folded paper. Then the artist allowed gravity to participate: The folds sink into themselves, rippling like waves on the wall. To create the work, Hall painted and dyed Unryu paper, which contains long strands of fiber that supply contrast and texture. She then dipped the edges in wax and attached them to either a paper or a silk backing. Her wide-ranging exploration of materials is particularly evident in the work: The paper is light and translucent but also strong and resilient. It holds paint, but its fibers absorb and change it. The strength of Hall's wall sculptures lies in their craftsmanship and exploration of the material, though they lack the confident presence of the artist's oil and acrylic paintings.
Hall's paper works are graceful and pretty, but she is not finished with startling us. Mounted "trophies," which consist of handmade doll and animal heads — usually with antlers — appear throughout the gallery. "Hunting Lodge," an installation composed of 14 works, each roughly a foot high, is the most horribly delightful. Glass eyes, horns and 3-D-printed antlers augment the realism. Dispassionate titles such as "Crying," "Round Face" and "Trophy Child" enhance the creepy factor, which is born of distorted faces and exaggerated expressions. The trophies appear to beg for rescue from this little house of horrors. Yet, again, they are also amusing. The artist's exquisite craftsmanship and sense of whimsy enable these inanimate effigies to evoke visceral responses.
These showier works can be distracting, but viewers should not overlook Hall's small encaustic-on-panel works. The six colorful abstracts — 8 to almost 9 inches square — are highly satisfying. Unlike the overt imagery of the trophies, the images here lie encased beneath the paintings' waxy surfaces. Each work is richly colored, from the orange-yellow-green palette of "Bubbles" to the intense red of "Swimmers." The encaustic wraps around the frameless sides, finishing each work beautifully.
Castleton Downtown's biggest room gives ample space to Hall's paintings. Her large abstract canvases employ bright, bold colors and are augmented with tiny, reflective ground-glass beads like those used on highway signs. When mixed with paint, these give the works a luminous quality. The interplay of materials is not simply ornamental; it's fundamental to Hall's aesthetic. In her oil paintings, the pigment is sometimes spare, revealing the texture of the plain canvas underneath. This approach recalls that of postwar abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, but Hall's addition of gold leaf and glass beads places her work in the 21st century.
Nearby, Hall's three "Study" paintings are biomorphic, with abstract images that suggest amoebas and other microscopic organisms. These enigmatic works speak to forms that change and evolve — as this versatile artist has transformed over decades of art making.
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