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Art Review: "Exposed" at Helen Day Art Center 

click to enlarge "Cut" by Edwin Bennett
  • "Cut" by Edwin Bennett

One of the best things about “Exposed,” Helen Day Art Center’s annual outdoor sculpture show, is that it’s outdoors. Given the occasional vandalism and thefts over the years, the gallery deserves props for just doing it. And for making the formidable effort to site nearly 30 works on the gallery’s lawn, around the village of Stowe and alongside the town’s sinuous rec path. On a gorgeous summer day, taking in this sprawling exhibit makes for a stimulating stroll regardless of what one thinks of the artworks en route.

As it happens, though, the majority of pieces in this year’s “Exposed,” curated by Rachel Moore, merit stopping for a closer look — and listen: Dialing a number on your cell gets you a brief artist statement for each work. This may or may not tell you something you can’t see for yourself, but it’s a nice option.

The risk of selecting works for this exhibit is that not every sculpture can stand up to the distractions outside; some would likely garner more attention in a white-box gallery. This could be said of Hector Leiva’s “The Matter of Memory” pieces, which appear in several locations. The works — each a low-to-the-ground plaster square with a QR code atop it — are potentially more engaging conceptually than visually. But if you haven’t installed a QR code reader on your phone, you won’t know that you can “leave a memory behind” with the Matter of Memory app — which also must be downloaded. But outdoors, even tech-savvy viewers might find this cerebral activity too much trouble.

Success in “Exposed” can be defined by one of two qualities: The work is strong enough to render location irrelevant, or it appeals precisely because of how it engages with the outdoors. As space prohibits evaluating all of the entries, here are three of the best pieces in each category.

Location Irrelevant

James Irving Westermann’s large-scale, lacy sphere is ingenious on several levels: For one, it’s constructed from recycled bicycle gears. Second, how Westermann corralled them into an elegant sphere is a captivating mystery. And third, the piece looks light and airy even though it’s made of metal. The looming steel beams upon which it sits are overkill, though; the sphere could sit unaided on the ground, as ready to engage as a beach ball.

Judith Wrend’s geometric, two-pronged aluminum sculpture juts upward authoritatively, commanding attention not just for its signature bright-red, automotive-finish paint job but for its assured presence in the world. Sited next to a sidewalk in downtown Stowe, Wrend’s piece is aptly named “Attraction.”

Colleen Rudolf’s lifelike bronze “Encounter (Wolf & Dog),” on the gallery’s front lawn, is a standoff of the two creatures that evokes surprising drama. Rudolf fashioned her dog with ears back and tail erect; the animal looks alert, uncertain, but willing to wag. The wolf’s tail hangs down as the creature gazes steadily at the dog. Not to anthropomorphize, but the expression on its face might be read as indulgence toward its more domesticated relative. Placed some 15 feet apart, the animals are locked in an evolutionary tension.

Engages With the Outdoors

Also on the gallery lawn, Ethan Bond-Watts’ “Seed #2” is literally botanical, at least in part. His elliptical steel armature is fuzzy with green grass and the occasional miniature nasturtium, this planted within the form with the assistance of soil and burlap. According to a description, an invisible irrigation system maintains the sculpture’s plant life, and the pod-like outline of the whole piece matches conception to function. No word on whether Bond-Watts employs a tiny lawnmower to manicure his witty abstraction.

Susie J. Gray calls her work “Looking East, 6 Degrees North,” but the structure, sited along but facing away from the rec path, is more emotionally resonant than that geographical title would suggest. That’s because the band-shell-shaped quasi-shelter, loosely formed with bent willow branches and entwined with native plants, harbors three tree stumps for sitting. And as soon as you enter and take a seat, you project on the space the narrative that suits you. Whether that’s playhouse or bus stop or gazebo, the enclosure engenders a sense of privacy and intimacy, and by extension a fondness for the natural materials that embrace you. But Gray’s simple structure is not just aesthetically pleasing; it is an astute manipulation of the very idea of shelter.

Edwin F. Bennett’s work, aptly titled “Cut,” is an anomaly in “Exposed,” and when you come upon it you wonder why the exhibit does not attract more Andy Goldsworthy-esque, temporal art such as this. Bennett’s striking creation is an “installation” by virtue of deletion. He cleared a straight, narrow channel through a copse of trees and lined its footpath with red mulch. This immediately flouts the art-class admonition that there are no straight lines in nature. At the end of the path, perhaps 30 feet away, there is sunshine, like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel — or the light that awaits us upon both birth and death. Or is this about humans’ imposition of rigid linearity (aka “development”) on the natural world?

“Cut” evokes multiple associations, but its greatest pleasure is experiential: Bennett invites viewers to walk the path and observe how this simple but symbolic alteration of the environment feels.

Oddly, it is the opposite of exposed.

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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