You don’t have to check in to check out Heidi Broner’s appealing show of paintings at the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. The 17 canvases hang in a busy lobby that’s currently accessorized with menorahs and wreaths. It is possible, however, to focus on Broner’s studies of intently concentrating laborers despite the many distractions, including a loop of Christmas Muzak.
A hospital is actually an apt venue for Broner’s art, though, for a couple of reasons. It exposes her talents to many Vermonters who otherwise might not encounter the work of this versatile artist, who lives just a few miles away. And five of the 17 pieces depict scenes inside the medical center, whose officials invited Broner to paint personnel as they performed their jobs.
These compositions portraying orderlies, nurses and surgeons command the attention of viewers who may be nervously awaiting medical procedures of their own. “Surgical Team” stands out among these works, and not only because it’s larger than the rest. A blue sheet conceals a patient being operated on by three masked figures, while a fourth sits plumply on a stool, his back to both the surgery and the viewer. In Broner’s hands, the square creases of the blue gowns and fabrics make a stronger visual impression than does the narrative, which could involve a matter of life or death.
Despite their similarity of subject, “Surgical Team” is quite unlike Thomas Eakins’ dramatically detailed “The Gross Clinic” and “The Agnew Clinic.” In those two large-scale landmarks of American painting, Eakins respectively documents an operation on a man’s femur and a woman’s breast. His raw presentation contrasts with Broner’s discreet treatment, in which not even a drop of blood appears.
“Surgical Team” does include motifs characteristic of Broner’s style: a limited palette in which blue and yellow predominate, and an absence of facial features (even though the paintings all qualify as types of portraits).
The austerity of her color choice directs attention to Broner’s subjects and their balletic movements. Her “At Work” series of paintings, which makes up most of the exhibit here, in fact brings to mind Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” series, in which young professionals in black business suits strike contorted poses against a stark, white background.
But Broner conveys unself-conscious grace, not awkward twists and spasms, in her images of bricklayers, cleaners and parking-garage attendants. In “Winter Crew,” for example, she shows two men in yellow safety vests, one chipping ice with a maul and the other sweeping up the bits with a push broom. They look like casually choreographed figures on a minimalist stage set consisting of a snowbank and a black backdrop.
“Burn Site” similarly shows two men working side by side against a bright- blue sky. They’re shoveling black ash into white buckets — nothing more, nothing less. One worker wears a baseball cap; the other’s long brown hair is uncovered, but viewers can’t tell what either man looks like.
Perhaps Broner’s consistent unwillingness to depict the faces of her subjects stems from a lack of technical confidence, like fellow figurative painter Fairfield Porter. He admitted to having trouble creating convincing representations of sitters’ faces, so he simply avoided head-on poses. With Broner, however, the omission is problematic. Her clear aim is to convey the dignity of human labor in a variety of forms — from surgery to propane delivery — and the absence of individuality undercuts this objective.
The show concludes with a wonderfully subtle piece that serves as a clever commentary on all the works that have come before it. Entitled “Water Color,” this 3-by-2-foot canvas shows a man — back to the viewer, again — seated on a pile of stones and engaged in some task that causes him to list to the left. A longer look reveals a paint box balanced on a stone and a small bowl resting in the man’s shadow.
Aha — he’s a watercolorist sketching a scene. And he’s a worker like all the others Broner memorably depicts in a show that will reward a holiday visit to the hospital.