Birds fly across a clouded sky, each one seeming to radiate a personal sphere, inviting thoughts of external and internal journey. A princess holding a small portrait stands atop an island tower, amid a profusion of flowers and golden apples as a young man in the sea below reaches his arms up out of the waves. A raven perches on the arm of a slender woman swimmer — their heads turned to each other in a moment of communication.
“Allegory,” the new exhibition at The Garage Cultural Center in Montpelier, casts a spell, drawing viewers into magical and universal stories.
“Allegory,” with paintings by Julia Zanes and Donald Saaf of Brattleboro and sculpture by Hasso Ewing of Calais, opened earlier this month and continues to June 22. The exhibition features storytelling works by the three artists.
Curated by Nel Emlen and David Schutz, “Allegory” is a pop-up exhibition of Art at the Kent. The Kent Museum, a Vermont owned 1837 tavern and landmark in Calais, is home to an annual contemporary art exhibition held every September to early October — this year titled “reVision.” All three artists in “Allegory” have been featured in past exhibitions there.
Historic buildings with rich backstories, The Garage and the Kent Museum both offer unique and visually compelling settings for contemporary art. Storytelling is at the heart of “Allegory.”
Zanes’ paintings invite viewers into sometimes dreamlike layers of detail and discovery.
“Many of my paintings involve narrative,” she notes in her artist statement on her website. “If there is any one tendency that runs through all experiences in life, whether waking or dreaming, it is the will to narrate. To tell the story is part of the mind’s process. Sometimes the stories we create have a linear quality, at other times they emerge almost as a riddle.”
Fairytales are among Zanes’ inspirations, including redemption motifs — whatever breaks an enchantment or spell. The universal and organic nature of these tales intrigues her.
“The Miniature,” Zanes’ piece with the princess atop the tower, draws from a tale about a prince who fell under a spell that made him forget his intended. Ultimately, love breaks the spell. With lush patterned flowers, red sea alive with fish beneath its undulating surface, tower collaged with faint photographs of iconic cathedrals, and the princess also appearing with outstretched arms at its entry, “The Miniature” evokes enchantment, resolution, and tenderness.
“I’m always in a battle between abstraction and illustration,” Zanes said, noting that, “there’s a big part of me working with themes unconsciously that are then revealed later.”
An approachable folk art quality in Saaf’s paintings leads viewers to a range of explorations.
“I have an idea of a story in my head, and then switch it up in my brain,” Saaf said.
Saaf uses mixed media in his works, including bits of found materials.
“I have big collections of found fragments — maps, diaries, someone’s handwritten math notebook, fabric from thrift stores, India. I think of it as magpie kind of thing, collecting and through an alchemical process transforming them. I want to be really intentional. I think of them as precious pigments,” Saaf said.
In Saaf’s “Night Birds,” a small circle of map from the coast of South America stands out like the heart of a central black bird, wings outstretched, head and beak tilted upward. Concentric dotted outlines of a human face in profile radiate out from the bird and its fellow flock-mates.
Saaf incorporates halo-like marks in many of his works.
He noted, “I like the idea of the spirit tethered to the body, but much larger.”
In Saaf’s works, the viewer is also drawn to what is beyond the surface figures, a hidden world revealed.
Ewing’s black birds flying overhead in the gallery evoke a further sense of journey. The raven quartet seems to wing its way through the space.
Each of Ewing’s two more-than-life size figures, swimmers, seem caught in a fleeting quiet moment.
Ewing, a longtime commercial artist, turned to sculpture in recent years, very recently to plaster sculpture, which she embraces for its suitability to large-scale work and also its pliability. With the plaster, she explained, as her figures take shape, she can work with them to capture subtle gestures and posture.
In “Standing with a Raven,” the bird and swimmer are together, but the bird seems to have initiated the interaction. The tilt of their heads hints that the human is perhaps asking a question of the bird.
Ewing’s swimmer fits the strap of one of her swim fins in “Flipper Adjustment.” It conveys a beautiful quiet and universal moment — she is in her own internal world, with the outside world seeming not so important.