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Slayton: Views of the lake

10/14/09 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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(HOST) Paintings of Lake Champlain by some of Vermont's leading artists are now hanging at the Vermont State House. The show's title is "Champlain's Lake Rediscovered," and, after seeing it, commentator Tom Slayton has these thoughts.

(SLAYTON) Lake Champlain has been many things to many people in its long history - an accessible pathway for the explorer, a strategic route of conquest for the warrior, an opportunity for commerce for the entrepeneur, and home to the thousands of people who live along its shores.

Its appeal to artists is no less diverse. Indeed, you could say there is not one Lake Champlain, but many. The lake is interpreted with striking difference by each artist who approaches it.

A Quadricentennial art exhibition, Champlain’s Lake Rediscovered: Vermont Artists Celebrate the Lake, is an obvious case in point. Each of the 38 artists in this broad-reaching and beautifully executed show has combined their own creative style with the immense subject of the lake itself. The result is 38 very different expressions - different lakes, if you will.

There are, for instance, several traditional, realistic landscapes. But even within that genre there is substantial variation. Dale Blodget and Brian Sweetland offer the huge views for which Lake Champlain is justly celebrated. Blodget’s "9 a.m. from Mount Defiance" presents the lake from a mountain in New York State that overlooks historic Fort Ticonderoga, with Vermont beyond. The lake reaches off to the north, with only a single plume of smoke (perhaps from the Ticonderoga Paper Mill) giving a hint of the modern world’s existence.

Many of the artworks in this show step beyond conventional landscape views, even though they are representational. Katherine Montstream’s oil, "Summer Storm," presses the lake and its surrounding landforms into the bottom quarter of her canvas; they lie dark and somehow passive beneath the huge, active sky. Most of the energy in this painting comes from the vibrant blues and creams and the jagged cloud-forms that fill the sky. It is a brilliant reminder that the Champlain Valley is New England’s "Big Sky Country" - and also hints at the Yin/Yang expressions of energy and receptivity that activate the natural world.

Bonnie Acker’s paper collage, "Champlain Organic," and Ken Rush’s oil, "Champlain Bridge Fractal," step away from traditional landscape forms to give us a more expressionist and intellectual view of the life surrounding the lake. Acker’s view is a positive one, with images of smiling workers harvesting fruit (the word "organic" beams just below) as wild geese ascend from a marsh into the sky. It is an ideal vision of place.

One of the most compelling images in the show is Helen Shulman’s beautiful, mysterious oil, "Waiting for Champlain," which presents the lake in three indistinct, dreamlike views, united by their warm, earthy palette and the sense of mystery that pervades them. As the title hints, this is Lake Champlain as the great French explorer might have himself encountered it: wild, undeveloped, both beckoning and slightly ominous.

Many of the images in this fine show link us, mind-to-mind, with the past, deepening our experience of Lake Champlain through the medium of art.
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