The Beauty of Chance
Eyewitness: John Anderson at BCA Center
John Anderson must have aced the part of the SAT where college-bound test takers are asked to project geometric shapes into the third dimension. The veteran Vermont artist and architect has the ability — stupefying to math klutzes — to transform spatial concepts into physical constructions.
Evidence of this aptitude fills the BCA Center on Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace where “John Anderson Drawings: 2006-2012 Constructed Conceptual” is on display. Anderson is happy to elaborate on his ideas and methods. “I love telling the backstory,” he says while leading a reporter on a tour of the show, which offers visitors cellphone access to Anderson’s descriptions of several of his paper-based pieces.
But it isn’t necessary to know about his thinking and his processes to appreciate his art, Anderson assures. And that’s a good thing, because some viewers will become befuddled once he starts rapping about quantum mechanics, black-hole theory and Planck units.
“I’m a science nut,” Anderson attests. “I’m into the most far-out, theoretical, mind-blowing stuff. I read about it every day.”
His artistic applications of abstruse notions — which Anderson admits “can twist my brain into knots” — are concentrated in the rear room of the gallery in a section of the show called “Chance Drawings.” The large-scale works hanging here give visual expression to the physics principle that, as he explains, “things happen in accordance with probability rather than being deterministic.” The human brain, he adds, “works on the basis of probability.”
Anderson rolled dice, flipped coins and drew Scrabble tiles at random to ensure the marks he made on paper would reflect the workings of chance. The resulting drawings, which combine geometric forms with squiggles and shadings, convey, he says, “a symbolic language generated by chance and applied by chance.”
But don’t worry: Most of the show, like the artist himself, is painlessly approachable. Anderson doesn’t seek to show off in his art, his architecture or his conversation. He aims for pleasing effects, verbally and visually.
And a mass audience has indeed come to admire Anderson’s creations over the course of his 40-year Vermont career, during which he designed such attention-getting spaces as Main Street Landing’s Wing Building and the Pine Street headquarters of Lake Champlain Chocolates. In a neat feat of doppelgängering, Anderson also drew the blueprint for the BCA Center (originally called Firehouse Gallery), which was crowded beyond capacity for his show’s opening on November 30.
Still wavy-haired and lanky at age 70, Anderson now mainly works as a consultant. His job is to conjure “the big picture” of a planned commercial space, which then gets filled in by work-a-day architects focused on “the hardcore elements.”
Anderson now devotes most of his time to making art in his North Ferrisburgh studio and home. “I’m finally and fully out of the closet,” Anderson quips, and notes that he considers himself an artist whose work includes architecture. Or, as he adds while pointing to the 120 pieces that make up the show’s “Paper Studies” section, “Architecture informs my art; art informs my architecture.”
For all his fascination with the mechanics of chance, Anderson’s drawings are the products of rigid rules he sets for himself. “It feels good to have a set of simple but unvarying rules that structure or limit the freedom of execution,” he notes in one of the epigrams printed on a wall at BCA. “As an architect, I always had to work with a lot of rules and restrictions.”
In the small-scale studies that hang side by side and row by row, Anderson’s strict system requires that one 11-by-15-inch piece of white paper lie flat and largely unaltered against the wall with a second, heavily worked piece glued to it. The protruding sheet may have been crumpled, cut, folded, rolled or even chewed, and sometimes rubbed with graphite. Each of the 120 studies is uniquely executed as a three-dimensional drawing that, in some instances, produces optical illusions.
Op art is one of the discernible influences on a body of work that may appear radically original. Dutch illusionist M.C. Escher seems to have left a distinct impression. And Anderson takes care to acknowledge an interest in the experiments in art-making by chance that American abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly conducted in conjunction with choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage.
It’s easy to become fixated on Anderson’s paper studies, but the real show stopper at BCA is the “Grasslands” grouping in which Anderson enhances his angular or puffy pop-outs with complementary colors. These seven assertive pieces, which fill most of the gallery’s Church Street room, don’t so much beckon as insist that passersby come inside for a good, long look.
Like all the other objects in the show, the “Grasslands” constructions can be enjoyed solely on aesthetic grounds. But it sure does deepen the viewing experience to learn a bit about their background, which Anderson recounts in the cellphone recordings.
Although they won’t be regarded as representational, these pieces are all inspired by a specific part of the country, which, in turn, reveals bits of Anderson’s biography. The undulating, slashing and writhing forms, described by the artist as “arabesques in space,” were abstracted from photographs Anderson took during a road trip last year through the prairie states, which supply the titles of the respective works. “North Dakota,” for example, explodes toward its top with white and yellow protuberances that, the artist relates, depict his recollection of a yellow combine thrashing up a cloud of wheat dust as it rumbled across autumnal farmlands. “Minnesota” gives form to the chartreuse, orange and red soybean fields that Anderson saw from his car window.
These sculptural paintings also riff on lines seen in the American prairie — fences, for example, or railroad tracks, corn rows or shadows cast on the road by telephone lines. They’re hypnotic.
“Something got into my soul,” Anderson says regarding a childhood spent in Nebraska, where his nonagenarian parents still live. “Most people find it boring, but I love the flatness, the expansiveness of that landscape.”
Anderson made his way from the Midwest to New England, where he earned a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a master’s in architecture from Yale in 1968. He arrived in Vermont three years later — “entirely by chance,” of course.
But Anderson has become as firmly fixed here as one of the rules that both govern and animate his creative process. “I would never, ever leave Vermont,” he vows. “It’s the sanest, safest place in the world.”
“John Anderson Drawings: 2006-2012 Constructed Conceptual” at BCA Center in Burlington. Through January 19. burlingtoncityarts.org