Long before Bernie Sanders and the Progressives revolutionized Burlington politics, and decades before the arrival in the Green Mountains of hippie back-to-the-landers, Vermont was home to a different kind of radical movement with earthshaking ambitions.
In the early years of the 20th century, Barre ranked alongside Chicago and Boston as an American epicenter of Italian anarchism. Immigrants working mainly in the quarries had brought to central Vermont a fierce commitment to individual liberty as well as a strong communal identity. Their legacy reverberates a century later, even though it’s “largely ignored in state-approved history textbooks,” comments Sue Higby, director of Studio Place Arts in Barre.
Higby’s gallery has begun closing that gap in the historical record by organizing a show that pays homage to the anarchists of Barre and features about 20 contemporary artworks that riff on the theme of anarchy. The exhibit is timed to coincide with the Barre Heritage Festival, which takes place July 21 to 25. Higby hopes “Anarchy” will kindle the curiosity or ignite the memory of some of the “people from all over the country who grew up here and come back every year for a four-day party.”
The pieces selected for the show are diverse in their materials, styles and points of origin. Artists from Massachusetts, Indiana and various parts of Vermont are represented here by paintings, collages, sculptures, photographs and a film. Several of the works straightforwardly celebrate or mourn anarchist heroes and martyrs.
A mug shot of Emma Goldman, for example, has been multiplied and retouched à la Andy Warhol by Charlestown, Mass., artist Larry Bowling, who did something similarly striking with an image of Oscar Wilde that hangs nearby. A West Pawlet, Vt., artist who goes by the single name Lali memorializes the female anarchists (“Mujeres Libres”) of the Spanish Civil War with a slate carving in low relief. It shows a woman with a baby cradled in her left arm and her right fist raised to what may be the moon.
Every examination of anarchism in the U.S. makes reference to Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian American anarchists regarded by many historians as having been wrongfully executed. Sure enough, here they are in the form of a clever construction by Rob Millard-Mendez of Evansville, Ind. Miniature wooden electric chairs dangle from wires in seesaw suspension in “Scales for Sacco and Vanzetti.”
Not every piece in “Anarchy” is so baldly political. In fact, an abstract stainless-steel composition by Richmond sculptor Bruce Hathaway ranks as the most elegant work on display. In “The Wave,” a series of arcs bends through space to form an almost-closed circle. Four small balls interspersed among them can be seen as meteors trailed and preceded by streaks of silvery light. To be included in “Anarchy,” Hathaway may have felt compelled to annotate his piece with the spell-breaking explanation that it depicts “four stylized individuals caught in the turbulence of a breaking wave.”
The quality of works by the 13 artists in the show is uneven. For example, the aesthetic appeal of a painting by Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann is meager in comparison with its size. “Popul Vu” covers the entire rear wall of the gallery. Alex Dostie’s “Planet of the Administration,” with its amateurish caricatures of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, is more rearguard than avant-garde.
The best segment of the show is documentary rather than artistic. However, this grouping of photos and cartoons from the Aldrich Library’s history collection hangs in a hallway as though it were an afterthought, lacking the presentation it deserves.
Visitors to Studio Place Arts will be fascinated by a photo of about 30 children posed in front of Barre’s Labor Hall. They were brought to Vermont as refugees from the bloody “Bread and Roses” textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Mass., in 1912. That walk-out was led by the Industrial Workers of the World — aka the Wobblies — whose anarchy-inflected campaigns are recalled in a few of the other images crowded into a corner.
It’s here, too, that “Anarchy” acquaints viewers with Luigi Galleani, a Barre agitator whom U.S. authorities once designated the most dangerous man in America, partly because of his influence on militants such as Sacco and Vanzetti. Galleani, born in Italy in 1861, arrived in Vermont via Canada in 1903. He was on the lam from a New Jersey arrest warrant for incitement to violence. In collaboration with fellow Italian anarchists who had settled in Barre, Galleani wrote and edited Cronaca Sovversiva, which local historian Paul Heller calls “the most influential anarchist newspaper ever published in the United States.”
Its front-page banner, designed by Barre carver Carlo Abate, hangs near a photo of Galleani and his wife, Maria, in which they appear as a bourgeois couple seated on rickety steps. Deported from the U.S. in 1919, Galleani died in Italy 12 years later.
This recounting of his life makes a fitting, though abbreviated, coda to “Anarchy,” a groundbreaking show that one hopes will inspire deeper excavations — by viewers and, perhaps in the future, by the gallery itself. However controversial it may be now, the subject comprises a rich and fascinating period of Vermont history.
“Anarchy,” a thematic group show in various media, Studio Place Arts, Barre. Through July 31.