Love and Sex at the Hall Art Foundation: It's Complicated

Look forward to autumn by planning a visit to the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, VT, a truly exciting venue for contemporary art just outside of Woodstock.  You will see curated shows from the 5000+ collection of Christine and Andrew Hall, in beautifully renovated buildings of a former dairy farm. The Foundation, which has a second location in Germany and a presence at Mass MOCA, is in its fifth year in Vermont, and admission is free.

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The current major exhibition is Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros, curated by renowned artist Eric Fischl, who “illustrates the absurd extremes associated with romantic and sexual love.” (The Foundation warns this is not an exhibition for children.) Over 80 paintings, photographs and sculptures take on the task of conveying what we know and feel about the erotic.

An alternative title for the exhibition might have been that of the featured photo, above, of a work by Dan Attoe called “Complicated Animals.” The exhibition includes the beautiful, the absurd, the politically charged, the kitschy (looking at you again, Jeff Koons) and the faintly (or even deeply) creepy. I am certain that each viewer can and will establish his or her own categories and assign a place for each work of art according to his or her personal and idiosyncratic tastes.

Judging from the collection, eroticism is found mostly in the female nude, like Venus Bleue, below, and often in representations or photos of breasts, genitals, and derrières. A photo by Lee Friedlander is a shot of a very young and nude Madonna. According to urban art-world lore, she was paid the sum of $25 for her modeling efforts. Another, by the famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. There is a lot of male-gaze going on, and some criticism of it, and sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which.

Close to impossible to tear your eyes away from that blue. Yves Klein patented it in 1961. It is International Klein Blue, or IKB.

The exhibition leaves the viewer with a number of questions about sex and gender. Most of the artists in this show are male, although approximately one-quarter are female. The subjects are not exclusively female but largely so. Male artists are drawing and painting and photographing women; so are women artists. So few places for the male nude? Some female artists are striking out against a male-informed eroticism, like Vermont’s own Chantal Joffe in Dusk, a disturbing painting depicting women offering sex in a public, park-like space. One of the oddest, least visually distinguished works, but packing a direct 1970s-style blow to the patriarchy, is Hannah Wilkie’s Chewing Gum Sculpture. It’s a tiny sculpture of a vulva--made of chewing gum--in a plexiglass box. Of it, she has said: “I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman—chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece.” Hannah's got a way with words.

Not every subject is nude in this exhibition. This dapper creation is adieu, homme by Georg Herold

Another piece in the exhibition, Sleepwalker, is provocative, sufficiently so to have caused a storm at Wellesley College, where an older, balder version of the statue had been installed on campus in 2014. Some students found the realistic sculpture of a sleepwalking man in his sagging white briefs to be threatening at worst and disgusting at best. The artist, Tony Matelli, thought his art had been misunderstood; he saw his figure as being vulnerable and had hoped to provoke empathy. For all his pains, the statute was defaced with yellow paint during its stay at Wellesley. Sleepwalker eventually ended up on the High Line in Manhattan. People grinned and took selfies with it.

Sleepwalker by Tony Matelli, 2001

Critic Sarah Selzer praised Sleepwalker by saying “But that’s the wonder of art, isn’t it?,” noting that the meaning of the sculpture might vary widely depending on its context and the viewer’s personal experience.  Wellesley students, in the middle of a campus-wide discussion about rape, found it menacing; Selzer thought it might be interpreted differently by hardened art-savvy New Yorkers. It’s an apt thought for this entire exhibition. What you see will depend on who you are and where you’ve been. In matters of Eros, we are, after all, oh-so-complicated animals.

Outdoor sculpture: Waterfall by Olafur Eliasson, 2004

Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros runs through November 26, 2017. The Foundation is open on weekends and Wednesdays by appointment. Appointments are available at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m, and 3:00 p.m. A savvy docent will guide your small group; on the first Friday of every month when you can wander through the exhibition as you please. You can get more information and book a tour online.


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I write about the arts and other interesting things in the Upper Valley. Please sign up to receive an email each time I post something new by clicking here.  To view my profile page or to read previous posts, please click here.

Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge




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