The article was originally posted on Localvore Today's The Daily Beet in the sponsorship of Shelburne Museum on February 3, 2016.
Winter is a complicated beast for Vermonters; the elation brought by the first falling flakes is equally matched with ire when we’re shoveling it up by the ton in late February. It’s this dichotomy that Shelburne Museum Curator Carolyn Bauer aimed to explore in her newly opened exhibit, 32 Degrees: The Art of Winter.
“While driving through Vermont”, Bauer reminisced during her opening presentation, “I distinctly recall my mother gushing about the scenery: ‘Look at the perfect babbling brook!’ and, “How beautiful, another white chapel!’ So you can’t blame me (too much) for believing I was moving into an idyllic, bohemian state that was perpetually and perfectly covered in glistening snow — a winter wonderland.”
It wasn’t long into Bauer’s Vermont residency when she recognized the dueling emotions surrounding the state’s snow and ice filled months. This prompted her acknowledgment of the paralleling dual roles of the season itself: “Winter takes life and gives life, it smothers what lies beneath it, yet when thawed, provides spring’s first drink of water.”
The theme of juxtaposition carries into the layout of the exhibit within the gallery, as well. Richard Vreeland’s 8-bit, arcade-style video game, January, is just around the corner from Vermont artist Eric Aho’s abstract oil paintings derived from wintry memory; and a late nineteenth century Monet is hung only feet from Benjamin Wright’s glass sculpture of an igloo resting in a wheelbarrow, LED lights emitting an eerie glow from the cavern’s belly. With all the pugnacious potentiality swirling about the gallery, the resulting mood is much like the aforementioned sentiments of winter — unexpected at times, but somehow felicitous.
Three divisions among the exhibit — Aesthetics, Physicality, and Associations — allow for mental starting and stopping points while viewing the exhibition:
Bauer describes the entry-point division of 32 Degrees, Aesthetics, as the exploration of “breaking down snow and ice into their most simplest forms of structure, scale, tonality, and light.” Thirty-three glass lanternslides encased in light boxes affixed to the wall, the first time this presentation method has ever been employed, introduce the viewer to none other than Vermont’s much-loved scientist, Walter A. “Snowflake” Bentley. Born in Jericho, VT in 1865, Bentley photographed more than three thousand snowflakes, separating individual crystals by sweeping them onto slides with a feather. While a black and white microscopic image of snowflakes sounds like the most simplified version of winter-related artworks, this is not the effect viewing the images imparts. The complicated angles, growths, and structures inherent in a single flake make for an absorbing visual experience, pulling the viewer into the realm Bauer has created.
Travelling further into the exhibit, Physicality opens the conversation more broadly. “Although these frozen particles can be a force to reckon with,” Bauer states, “it is also the physical delicacy that makes them inherently weak.” The circumstances under which snow is possible — and the forces changing these elements globally — are brought to the forefront by the artists in this division. While never explicit, the seven artists comprising the Physicality subsection offer work acting as a start to the larger conversation of climate change. Sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard traverses the earth to record the “otherwise inaudible natural noise,” as Bauer describes his sonic pursuits. In his work MELT, Kirkegaard plunged highly sensitive microphones into the depths of Greenland glaciers to document the notes echoing in the unseen regions of the arctic. Bauer characterizes the resulting compositions as a “dramatic, slightly unsettling score of tranquil sounds of rain mixed with jarring crescendos of moving ice.” Kirkegaard and the other artists within Physicality remind viewers of the delicate ephemerality of even the grandeur of glaciers and snow-capped mountains.
The final section of the exhibit, Associations, evokes our internal selves — nostalgia, story, and memory of the experience of winter. When winter is seasons away, we’re apt to reminisce of snow-flecked jaunts and rosy cheeks. In the thick of it, sludge and tracked road salt may feel more the part. Partners Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz explore this phenomenon in their Traveler series, a collection of handmade snow globes. Tiny vignettes of snow life, albeit improbable, nest inside each sphere, requiring viewers to come close and peer inside. Upon inspection, each globe contains a scene of confusion — a donkey riding a human, and a human riding a donkey; a house lifted off three corners with a man beneath in full Atlas repose; still another figure negotiating the snow in a pair of stilts. Each has their own tiny story, with onlookers feeling as if they have been dropped down the rabbit hole and became a Carrollian character mid-sentence. Did this truly happen, or are we just envisioning a better story?