If there is a straight line in the state of Vermont I have never seen it. Vermont is, by seasonal turns, a green or white landscape of hills and mountains, hollows, valleys, and gorges, all bucking and turning and curvilinear in the extreme. Vermont is also, perhaps because it is located upriver from New York, the most progressive of the six New England states, its small cities, towns and countryside populated by environmentalists, socialists, Buddhists, and idealists. Think Ben & Jerry’s and Phish.
Currently, the Robert Hull Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont in Burlington is featuring three exhibitions (all through December 19) that, though at first glance might seem disparate and unrelated, strike me as perfectly congruent with the free spirit of Vermont.
Stooks, Stacks, and Sheaves:Agricultural Landscapes in America, 1850 – Present is a glass case exhibition of paintings, prints, photographs, broadsides, and farm implements that speaks to the changing nature of the agrarian way of life. Curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, who arrived in Burlington from the Cleveland Museum of Art in June, conceived of the show on her first day on the job when she learned that artist Lars-Erik Fisk, a 1993 UVM grad, had just given the museum a wonderful conceptual sculpture entitled “Barn Ball,” a prototypical red Vermont barn with stone foundation concentrated into a ball 18 feet in circumference.
To complement Fisk’s “Barn Ball,” Marcereau DeGalan assembled some 50 objects ranging from farmscape lithographs by Edward M. Sanborn and Thomas Hart Benton to a contemporary tempera by Altoon Sultan, a resident of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdrom. Her painting plays off modern plastic calf hutches against the timeless, undulating Vermont landscape, fittingly with a little red barn in the background. Aimee Marcereau DeGalan says she intentionally juxtaposed pastorale images with images and objects evocative of agriculture as a purely practical and unromantic matter of survival, hoping to suggest that “there are multiple ways to look at a landscape.”
Buddha in Paradise: Tibetan Art from the Rubin Museum features tangka paintings and sculpture that explore the Buddhist concept of “Pure Land.” Between October 15 and 22, Tibetan monks will create a mandala of colored sand in the museum’s Marble Court.
Vermont, it has been suggested, may be home to the largest concentration of Caucasian Buddhists in the United States with more than two dozen Buddhist sanghas and meditation centers around the state, chief among them the Vermont Zen Center in Shelburne, Karme Choling in Barnet, and the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Hartland Four Corners. As it happens, the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, is currently (through October 16) hosting an exhibition of prayer flags created by contemporary artists to mark the grand opening of the Rubin Museum of Art in 2004.
The third Fleming exhibition at the moment is Architectural Improvisation: A History of Vermont’s Design/Build Movement, 1964-1977. Curator by Norwich University architecture Danny Sagan, the show features photographs, plans, drawings and artifacts from several innovative building projects undertaken in the heady days of the counterculture by visionary young architects such as David sellers, Bill Reineke, Jim Sanford, Bill Maclay, Ellen Strauss, Charles Hosford, John Mallary, and Barry Simpson who fanned out from hotbeds of new architectural practice such as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania to merge high style architecture with vernacular building forms in the countryside.
Seen together, these three Fleming Museum shows suggest that there is always more than one way to look not only at the landscape but also Buddha and buildings. Try looking with your third eye.
Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, 61 Colchester Ave., Burlington, VT. 802-656-0750.