In the March 5 edition of National Public Radio’s “The Story” with Dick Gordon, Vermont artist Tari Swenson revealed that her first attempts at calligraphic sumi brushwork were awful. So bad that she packed away her roll of rice paper in the attic and intended to never revisit the technique. But the interview went on to reveal a transformational experience for Swenson: a house fire that brought her face-to-face with a scrap of that old calligraphy. The incident led her to reexamine, and ultimately master, the sumi calligraphy brush.
Swenson is one of a quartet of artists exhibiting now in a show called “Four Today” at Montpelier’s T.W. Wood Gallery. The sense of self-discovery she described on the radio seems to be shared by her co-exhibitors: Alexandra Bottinelli, Deborah Hillman and Beth Pearson. Rather than imposing her will on images the way a realist might do, each of these artists has allowed her subjects to reveal themselves in layered stages.
Swenson’s triptych “Storm Light” is a landscape with a flat, low horizon running across three 18-by-18-inch oils. The sky begins with patches of pale yellow at left and gradually gives way to cerulean blue at right. The ground is shadowy, with pale passages indicating a lake and fields. The monoprint “Storms Over Lake Champlain” is likewise a graceful landscape, with bands of blue and green under a broad firmament. While not totally atypical, Swenson’s landscapes are not her predominant style. She explained in her NPR interview that the sumi aesthetic is “still what I yearn for when I do the work,” and her monoprint “With Amusement” reflects the calligraphic epiphany she described.
Pearson’s largest contribution to the show is her 40-by-72-inch oil “Victorious Horse.” It’s almost figurative, with repeated arc forms bent like the neck of a grazing equine. Both the scale and the echoed curve of a real creature are unusual for Pearson, known for her abstractions. The painting is described with a limited range of hues; the background is essentially three values of gray, while the central form is a pale sandy brown merging into red brown. This simple harmony works very well.
While most of Bottinelli’s pieces are her usual small- or medium-sized fare, “Vessels” and “Cornucopia” are both 18-by-84-inch oil collages on hollow-core doors. Hundreds of cutout pictures of chalices, beakers, bowls and spoons are jumbled in a lavender field on the surface of “Vessels.” “Cornucopia” is equally whimsical, portraying dragonflies, starfish, shells, sharks and birds among its collaged images. All are colorfully painted, and the background is rich and dark.
An online bio describes Hillman’s intuitive approach — specifically, that she allows “the process itself to reveal what’s there.” Her 2008 oil “Tending the Source” is a 20-by-72-inch oil with circles and soft-edged triangles in pale orange, white and light green in the lower portion of the composition. A sinewy line leads upward to a lilac cloud at the top; a group of white rings floats in this mist. Hillman’s “Rain on the Mountain” is a 21-by-30-inch piece that employs shapes and hues similar to those in “Tending the Source.” An abstract purple mountain with a white peak contains small objects. The paint quality is rich and varied. Hillman has a PhD in anthropology and has worked as an ethnographer; perhaps this explains why she’s interested in universal forms.
Each of these artists seems to experience aesthetic epiphanies with every piece. That makes “Four Today” a show of visual discovery for the viewer, as well.