Eyewitness: "Best of the North East Masters of Fine Arts" at Helen Day Art Center
The cliché goes, “great minds think alike.” A new exhibit at Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center  suggests that great minds might have similar thoughts about the vehicle of art but drive those points home uniquely.
“Best of the North East Masters of Fine Arts” presents seven “emerging” artists, recent MFA grads from schools in the northeastern U.S. and Québec. Three professional curators and a University of Vermont art history prof, Anthony Grudin, juried the works, and HDAC director Nathan Suter curated the exhibit. The result is a diverse and thought-provoking collection of photography, installation, painting and mixed media.
Viewers might expect to see promising but relatively unsophisticated work from artists at the beginning of their careers. They would be half right: The “promising” part is true. Conceptually, many of these pieces are insightful; most are impeccably executed. Each of these artists merits an individual review, but space permits just a sampling.
The two photographers in “Best” frame the exhibit on either side of the gallery with arresting, large-scale images. Robert Watermeyer  (Massachusetts College of Art and Design) draws strength from the startling combination of natural beauty and environmental devastation à la Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky , who was shown at the Shelburne Museum last year. Mother Nature may always win in the end, but Watermeyer’s depictions of wastelands in his native South Africa and in the American Southwest convey at least temporary injury. Color photographs in which the saturation is nearly drained away eerily emphasize isolation: An unpeopled beach scene is so stripped of hue — and context — that it is not clear what we’re looking at. A pale-gray sea melts into a pale-gray sky. Is that snow or sand? How big are those striated rocks? Is this planet Earth?
In another image, a bird’s-eye view of what looks to be a mining area in a desert offers few clues — everything is washed-out brown, and even the presence of far-off trucks fails to inform us what’s going on.
Though Watermeyer’s technical skill is fine, it is his grasp of ambiguity that compels long, searching looks at his images. Like Burtynsky, he doesn’t tell the whole story. Human presence is implied or distant in most of his shots here, but in the two with figures, the mystery only deepens. In one, a young South African man clad in disheveled, Western-style clothes and two blingy silver necklaces pauses to offer the photographer a defiant look as he stands in front of a barbed-wire fence surrounding some unseen installation. A prison? A military base? Again, we can only imagine.
On the opposite side of the gallery, Jennifer Cawley’s photographs provide plenty of rich color but even more obfuscation. Her mystery is the internal kind: trying to remember. “Her father was a Vietnam vet who died when she was 7,” explains Suter. “She’s doing work on how we construct memory from these fragments.”
The Rhode Island School of Design grad from Massachusetts seems to have taken newspaper or magazine images from the Vietnam War and blown them up — that act itself perhaps an intentional metaphor. The dot gain from the halftones is evident in the old photos. (Ancient technology, kids.) The dominant color is green, given the terrain of that Southeast Asian country. But, while the images are intentionally distorted, Cawley has also manipulated the focus; large swaths of the figurative scenes are blurred, in the way that rain on a windshield puddles the view. Scale here, too, is indiscernible: Are those toy soldiers or real ones? What’s actually going on here?
Whatever the personal significance to Cawley of the images or her process, the viewer is left to contemplate the seemingly endless story of humans killing humans — or, perhaps, the ironic fullness of life that the verdant green implies.
Sharing the east gallery with Cawley is new-media artist Christopher Page (Yale University School of Art) of London, whose minimalist, exacting constructions of rigid foam and off-white latex vaguely suggest functionality: The wall-hung “Protein” almost looks like a giant light switch; “Therapy” is almost a chair, albeit a tricky one to negotiate. There’s a hint of both pop-art humor and sci-fi sterility in these bold structures, but in the end they are about nothing. And, as with “Seinfield,” therein lies the intrigue.
Joo Lee Kang (School of the Museum of Fine Arts), paired with Watermeyer in the west gallery, is decidedly consumed by something: mutation. The Boston-based artist’s black-on-white works are presented as wallpaper-like scrolls, framed drawings and an 18-foot-long, wall-hung installation called “Chaos.”
Kang’s wallpaper seems like updated toile, but on closer inspection its “cute” creatures — ducklings, small snakes, frogs — clearly have two heads, three legs or other deformities. Her competent drawings are rendered with ample cross-hatching, but there’s nothing comic about the results. The mutated critters populate the hundreds of photocopied pages of “Chaos,” which forms an organic, undulating swoosh and illustrates Kang’s disturbing point. “It’s about out-of-control repetition, like cancer,” observes Suter.
The middle gallery room of Helen Day is filled with the whimsically obsessive, monochromatic installations of Melanie Perreault (Concordia University); an “Employee of the Month” conceptual installation by John C. Gonzalez (School of the Museum of Fine Arts) that riffs on the systems of commerce; and striking paintings by Francisco Moreno (RISD) that present iconic American images — the bald eagle, Lady Liberty, Captain America — in severe black, gray and white. Moreno’s broad-brush strokes of white across his images are deliberate and artful — obscuring rather than defacing, suggests Suter — and add a design element that turns visions of dominance into abstractions.
Each of the artists in “Best,” in his or her own way, subverts the obvious and rewards the curious.