The Hand Towel project at BMAC reviewed by David Rohn

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BRATTLEBORO >> I left the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center after my second viewing of the current main exhibit with a chuckle. I recalled the spectacular Red Grooms exhibit of last year- boisterous, energetic, with an in-your-face defiance of conventional aesthetics that included a three-quarter scale mock NYC bus with sculpted passengers you could sit down beside. A sensory overload.

The present show, The Hand Towel project, opposite in many ways, is also unsettling to the viewer's expectations of a quiet time passing from one artwork to the next, absorbing and evaluating. For one thing, there is nothing on the walls, as if they had overlooked hanging the show. There is a small shock of absence similar to what I experienced on first seeing a Zen rock garden; it's empty.

It takes a moment to adjust to the fact that you are, in fact, inside a huge piece of sculpture.

It is a sculpture made mainly of a block of air the width, length and height of the great hall. The sculpture has many parts. More than a hundred hand towels, each individually designed, some woven, most printed in a tree branch. These are suspended from actual branches affixed flat against the ceiling, and are distributed more or less evenly through out the area. They swivel on their hangars when motivated by the slightest eddy of breeze in the very still room. They make the volume of air palpable by their response. Project on the walls, delicately, just legibly, lines of poetry and prose scroll upward to be hidden by shadows of the towels. The words have meaning, thoughts about life, but they are brief and fragmentary, they touch us without drawing us away from the unity of the work as a whole. (Complete texts are available in a handout booklet.)

Elizabeth Billings and Andrea Wasserman are Vermont artists who collaborate on public art projects.

Their commissions are installed in parks and public and corporate spaces nationwide, including the Burlington Airport Terminal. They each independently spent over a year studying ecot weaving in Japan, and met when studying at Cranbrook, in Michigan.

I first saw this show at its opening, with the museum full of people meeting and greeting. This sort of situation is right for Red Grooms, endurable for most art, but precisely wrong for this show. I left socially fulfilled but with only a faint impression of the work on view as it requires full attention.

Among the important parts of this grand piece is that rarity, silence. If you find you can step aside from your urgencies for a bit, and yearn for a still point, don't miss this experience.

The Hand Towel Project closes Sunday, June 21.

Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is located at 10 Vernon, St., Brattleboro.


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