Sally Linder has lived in Burlington for most of her 36-year painting career, but her palette looks nothing like Vermont’s. Lustrous earth tones fill Linder’s canvases, whether she’s demonstrating her figurative skills or letting loose with abstract-expressionist swirls and scumbles. Her glowing renderings of desert colors come from sojourns in southern Africa and the American West, the settings or inspirations for many of the works in Linder’s stirring show at the Firehouse Gallery.
A trio of representational paintings readily visible from the Church Street Marketplace is sure to lure passersby to “Pilgrimage: Remote and Inner Landscapes,” which surveys Linder’s output since 1992. Each of these pieces depicts everyday scenes — with some imagined embellishments — of Soweto and other black South African townships that remain as segregated and impoverished now as in the days of apartheid. Amid shacks plopped on the grassy veld, however, most of the people in Linder’s paintings seem quite happy — even joyous. In “Luminous Beings,” for example, a woman overscaled in relation to the children around her stretches her arms toward heaven and exults.
All three of these brilliantly lit compositions take the form of triptychs, with a central panel flanked by hinged wings. The association with early Christian and Gothic altar pieces is not coincidental. Linder’s work is suffused with a questing, spiritual quality, and some of her paintings are downright devotional.
But they invite a viewer to come closer and touch.
The side panels of the triptychs are painted on both front and back and can be swung open, shut entirely or left angled. Viewers are thus able to arrange the scenes in a variety of combinations and to alter their perspectives; what appears to be a three-part painting is actually multidimensional. And it’s not mere gimmickry: The funky form cleverly complements the cinematic content.
Most of the pieces in “Pilgrimage” are big and bold. The show’s centerpiece is “Ark of Hope,” a 500-pound chest with painted sides depicting seasonal scenes. This work, too, may be opened and closed, and inside it resides a papyrus copy of “The Earth Charter,” a declaration of environmental and social justice principles, along with 600 handmade books on similar themes crafted by adults and children from many countries.
As a spontaneous response to the events of September 11, 2001, Linder and various helpers rolled and carried the ark from Shelburne to Manhattan over the course of two months. That journey, culminating in an exhibit at United Nations headquarters, generated media interest in Linder and her collaborators on the ark, cabinetmaker Kevin Jenness and fiber artist Beth Haggart.
But Linder’s grandest example of art-as-spectacle is probably her 1998 ritual burial in Borneo, Cameroon and Madagascar of 14 paintings from her “Remembering the Primates” series. These portraits of gorillas, lemurs, gibbons and orangutans native to those lands were painted following a 1995 Christmas Eve fire at the Philadelphia Zoo that killed 23 endangered primates. A few pieces from this series, each bordered with tribal patterns, are included in the Firehouse retrospective.
The rear room of the gallery contains several abstract paintings, all of which have been given representational titles, such as “Crazy Clowns” and “Two Boys Walking Through Starry Night.” The names and the continuity of colors from the South African township series help blur the boundaries between realism and abstraction — which Linder seems to regard as arbitrary and artificial ones, anyway. She has said that the painter’s choice of portraying objectively or subjectively is determined by the subject’s desire to be recognized or left to the imagination.
The room looking out on City Hall Park is dominated by a 10-by-5-foot piece entitled “Homage to Shostakovich Opus 110.” It looks like a Pollock painting of a sun storm. The surging, ebullient music that inspired Linder’s own explosive opus can be heard on headphones provided by the gallery.
While such bombast has plenty of aesthetic appeal, the show’s most powerful pieces are three small ink-on-paper drawings hanging inconspicuously in a corner of the room that fronts on Church Street. They demonstrate Linder’s fine draftsmanship more dramatically and evocatively than anything else in the show. Each sheet offers a view of the skeleton of a great horned owl that fell dead from a spruce tree onto a Burlington sidewalk.
Linder says in the catalog accompanying “Pilgrimage” that she carried the owl home and watched its body decompose and return to the earth in an “exquisite” 18-month-long process. She then arranged the skeleton in poses that “articulated his powerful delicacy and clown-like antics.” The subsequent drawings, with their hatched shadings, movingly illustrate Linder’s discovery of “the striking resemblance between owl and man, as if they had sprung from the same thought.”
In addition to Pollock, other influences can be discerned in Linder’s work. A few paintings featuring pelvic bones and cow skulls actually look too much like Georgia O’Keeffe’s signature images. Much more subtle — and perceptively noted by Vermont painter Cameron Davis in the handsome “Pilgrimage” catalog produced by Kasini House — is Linder’s kinship with pioneering abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). The connection is evident not so much in the two artists’ styles as in their spiritualism. Even at her most representational, Linder is clearly concerned as much with the metaphysical realm as with the physical world.