Visionary New England
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2020
From the exhibition at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
148 pp., illus. 143 col. Trade, $35.00
Visionary New England is the superb catalog of an exhibition scheduled at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum for April 2020 but currently still postponed due to the coronavirus crisis at the moment of writing this review. Officially opened in 1950 and located in Lincoln, Mass., very close to the famous Walden pound, deCordova rapidly became the only museum of the area to focus its exhibitions and collecting activities on living New England artists, while adopting a broad educational program in the visual arts. Today, the venue of the museum also hosts an onsite preschool program, the Lincoln Nursery School, with a pedagogical model inspired by the “Reggio Emilia”, one of the various child-centered types of progressive education that emerged in the first half of the twentieth-century.
Visionary New England, which contains essays by Sarah J. Montross, Richard Hardack, Lisa Crossman and Anna Craycroft and includes lavishly reproduced and well-presented artworks by Gayleen Aiken, Caleb Charland, Anna Craycroft, Angela Dufresne, Sam Durant, Josephine Halvorson, Paul Laffoley, Candice Lin, Michael Madore and Kim Weston, is a project that perfectly matches the goals of the institution. It showcases contemporary arts across a broad selection of visual media (painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation art), while also foregrounding the links with the cultural and historical environment of the Boston area. By doing so it, takes a double risk. First of all, and regardless of the intrinsic quality of the works on display, the exclusive choice of “local” artists is always in danger of being dismissed as regionalist, at least in the larger context of an art sphere that has become completely and ruthlessly global (even folk art has to be globalized in order to be taken seriously). Second, the reference to the essential link between New England and religious and mystical movements such as the Great Awakening, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism and, in a more recent past, of countercultural movements, may be at odds with the more rationalist ways of living and thinking in modern Western societies.
Visionary New England is roughly divided in two parts, perfectly integrated one into another. Half of the book is devoted to unpacking the historical, social, political, religious and ideological context of what “visionary” has meant and continues to mean in and for New England. In this book, the notion of visionary both encompasses and exceeds the traditional meaning of being touched by a divine, outside force, in order to also include a wide range of creators and worldviews not aligned to religious doctrines or forms of knowledge depending on official commercial, institutional or governmental structures. Key in this regard is the relationship to nature (often written with a capital N) and the search for the Divine (sometimes with a lower case d) as well as the emphasis on self-reliance and its organic link with new ways of communal living. Major historical examples are Brook Farm and Fruitlands, more recent ones are Timothy Leary’s LSD project at Harvard or the somewhat 50 countercultural communes created in Vermont. Visionary New England thus has very useful background information on questions such as the “visionary sites and communities” (from the eighteenth century shaker villages to Paul Loffoley’s “Boston Visionary Cell”) or the lasting impact of visionary thinking for education (from the early nineteenth century pioneering Temple School of Amos Bronson Alcott the continuing inspiration of early twentieth century pedagogies in the current preschool program at deCordova). Other contributions concentrate either on general themes (such as utopia and spiritualism) or very specific types of visionary art, yet always insisting on the impossibility to separate art and life (which also includes afterlife, as clearly shown in the text on spirit photography). The introductory essay by Sarah Montross is a powerful and convincing piece in this regard, and it is nicely complemented at the end of the volume by a list of further reading and viewing.
Can one judge the quality of the exhibited works from the way they are represented in a book, that is without having seen and experienced them in their “natural” environment, both the region and the natural world that inspires them and the park and museum they help to build? The answer is yes, since the works in question are not site-specific in the technical sense of the word: all artists create in symbiosis with the New England environment, but this environment is not just material, as in the case of site-specific art. It is deeply rooted in history and a more general idea of land and nature than the specific properties of the mere deCordova venue. At the same time, the book design and the sequential ordering of the material enhance the many correspondences between artists and media, both past and present. To read this book is also to make a walk through New England art and life, from document to creation, from text to image, from timeless experiment to ephemeral installation. What comes to the fore is the exceptional force of color and the collective dimension of making art. This book can of course not be the substitute of an actual visit to the site, but it certainly proves that the best way to deconfine local art is to deepen its many relationships with the richness of a given place and its multiple temporalities.