by Suzanne Podhaizer
Some galleries host shows with themes, such as “tiny art” or “America under Trump.” Some offer juried exhibits, meaning that judges select pieces based on merit. In Montpelier, at The Front—a cooperative gallery with 16 members—they do things a bit differently: For each show, all member artists submit whatever they feel like putting on the walls, pedestals, or even the floor.
Show 23, featuring work from all 16 members of the cooperative, opened January 12. A more formal reception is scheduled for February 2, during the Montpelier Art Walk.
Why 23? “We’re pretty sure it’s our 23rd show,” says gallery founder Glen Coburn Hutcheson.
The exhibition, which runs until February 24, hosts a variety of media. Janet Van Fleet’s contribution includes a disconcerting metal-and-fabric sculpture, entitled “The Long Haul: Invasion.” A gauze-wrapped bundle in a cage, pricked by curled bits of metal, it brings to mind thoughts of prisons, factory farms, and hospitals.
Original member James Secor offers an impressionistic acrylic painting of Montpelier’s outskirts—featuring a pair of semi-trucks on Route 2—called “Homosapiens’ Last Hurrah.”
“Toothache,” by Jesse Cooper, is a tall wedge of cherry wood knotted in a strip of cloth, with half of the bow tie tinted red and the other blue.
In addition to featuring the work of Front members, Show23 has a guest artist in Jeanne Thurston of Wolcott, who makes three-dimensional paintings that “change color” as the viewer walks past.
Because there is no motif—nor shared medium—to unite the works of art, the trick, Hutcheson says, is to create a show with flow. “That’s actually my favorite part,” he explains. “That lack of curation, in a way, that lack of censorship, sets up the problem of how to arrange [the works] in the space so that people can see them easily, and they’re interfering with each other minimally.
”Do patterns emerge as Hutcheson and company look at the submissions? Yes. “Sometimes there are uncanny feeling similarities,” he says. “Sometimes everybody will be working with the same kind of squiggly hand motion, or nine-tenths of everything is blue.” But, he suggests, “Humans are pattern finders…I honestly think it’s mostly random, but it’s a wonderful tool for us to use to give the show cohesiveness.
”Although the membership has changed over time, after two years of cooperative shows there are surely ways in which the members influence each other, Hutcheson guesses. They regularly examine each other’s’ works, share thoughts and criticism, and have meetings to discuss, or sometimes argue about, the gallery’s direction. Some folks want to do themed shows. Others wish to show their works solo. “It’s a question of keeping the artists engaged, and also the community,” Hutcheson explains.
The Front was built by honoring the idea of “community.” At some point in 2014, Hutcheson explained, he began using the 6 Barre Street space as his personal gallery, but the rent was too high for him to make a go of it solo. Then, for a time, he shared it with a handful of other artists. When that group broke up, he thought about handing in the keys, but his fans encouraged him to find a way to keep the gallery going.
He put out a call to all of the artists he knew to see if any had the means to go in on the studio space. He found a dozen interested parties, and The Front was born. Around half of those members are still part of the group.
Even with sixteen members, however, the gallery is operating close to the bone, and the group is always seeking new ways to bring in revenue and expand the gallery’s hours.
A coffee shop operated in the space for a time, creating more opportunities for visitors to view the art and get caffeinated while doing so. Another arrangement like that, Hutcheson says, could be beneficial for all of the parties involved. “[The members] all have jobs and stuff to do,” he notes. “Let’s do events, let’s do sublets…we’re interested in finding ways to have the gallery open more, and make it useful for as many people as we can.”
When it comes to art, one of the things that makes it useful is its ability to provoke thought. In Show 23, pieces such as Van Fleet’s sculpture and Hutcheson’s own “John LePage for City Council”—a work in crayon depicting the eponymous politician sporting a clown nose—fit the bill.
In a gentler way, so does Hannah Morris’s “The Day Before.” The piece—of gouache, paper, glue, and varnish on wood—depicts seven figures, three of whom are packing a car with suitcases, as if for a journey. The title, and the imagery, offer a bit of mystery to the viewer. How do these characters fit together? What are they about?
In that respect, Morris’s work echoes the story of Show 23. To engage with it means considering the elements separately, and as a whole. It means seeking patterns and making meaning. And that, as Hutcheson says, is part of what it is to be human.
Show 23 is on display at The Front at 6 Barre Street in Montpelier on Fridays, 5-8 pm, Saturdays, 11 am-8 pm, and by private appointment thefrontvt.com