Seeing red, feeling blue — but now a spark of joy: Dual exhibit at A.P.E. gallery

  •  “Blue,” oil painting by Nannette Vonnegut. Image courtesy Nanette Vonnegut

  •  “Clowns in the wilderness, monotype print by Nanette Vonnegut. Image courtesy Nanette Vonnegut

  • “Pete’s View,” oil painting by Nanette Vonnegut. Image courtesy Nanette Vonnegut

  • “Scenes from the Apocalypse: Western God Trying to Convince Other Gods They Never Existed,” sculpture by Jennifer McCandless. Image courtesy Jennifer McCandless

  • Detail from “Baby Boomer Bad Ass with Patriarchal Shoulder Parrot,” sculpture by Jennifer McCandless.    Image courtesy Jennifer McCandless

  • “Scenes from the Apocalypse: Moby Dick Coughs Up a Plastic Hairball,” sculpture by Jennifer McCandless PhotoS by Steve Pfarrer

  • “Scenes from the Apocalypse: Moby Dick Coughs Up a Plastic Hairball,” sculpture by Jennifer McCandless Photo by Steve Pfarrer

  • The rough side of nobility: “King Cerdic, Eater of Mutton,” sculpture by Jennifer McCandless.  Photo by Steve Pfarrer

  • “Hanging With the In Girls,” sculpture by Jennifer McCandless.  Photo by Steve Pfarrer

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2020

About three years ago, Northampton painter and printmaker Nanette “Nanny” Vonnegut met sculptor Jennifer McCandless at The Loomis Chaffee School, after Vonnegut was invited to spend a week as a visiting artist at the college prep academy north of Hartford, Connecticut.

Vonnegut says she felt a little shy about taking the residency, but meeting McCandless, a teacher and the head of the school’s art department, made the experience a pleasure.

“Right away I felt comfortable, and when Jen gave me a tour of her studio, it just blew me away,” Vonnegut says. “Her stuff was amazing, and we both felt there was something we shared in our work, some kindred spirit.”

Soon the two were thinking in broad terms of having a shared exhibition. Fast forward to late 2020, and that goal has been realized.

“Seeing Red, Feeling Blue,” at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, brings the surrealism, dark humor and cartoonish aspects of both artists to the fore, with a layout offering a striking contrast between Vonnegut’s somewhat dark-hued paintings and prints and McCandless’ bright and sometimes shiny ceramic and stoneware pieces. What ties all the work together is a sense of humor both absurdist and biting.

“Mamette,” for instance, is an oil portrait (and to some degree a self-portrait) by Vonnegut of a woman who’s ensnared by vines. She stands in front of a plant that envelops her naked upper body, and her face, turned partly to the side, is like a sea of white in a green and reddish sea; the woman’s expression is alternately bemused and a bit apprehensive, reflecting a sense of “What exactly is happening here?”

McCandless in turn has crafted pieces that offer commentary on a number of issues: environmental degradation, identity, religious strife, patriarchal society. Several sculptures are part of a series called “Scenes from the Apocalypse,” such as a look at the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, notably the Pacific, that’s killing sea creatures which ingest the garbage.

One entry is “Moby Dick Coughs Up a Plastic Hairball,” in which a goofy-looking whale, a column of green water rising from its spout, sits with an extended tongue and a wide-open mouth; in front of the creature is a greenish blob studded with tiny plastic bottles and other debris.

Also part of the “Apocalypse” series is “Western God Trying to Convince Other Gods They Never Existed,” in which a bearded white man, wearing a robe and sandals, hectors a group of seated people and part-animal figures, some with ornate headdresses and colorful costumes; they look back at the bearded man with alarm.

Then there’s a selection of five gnarled-looking busts, like the ne’er-do-wells from a royal family, that McCandless calls the “Patriarch Series.” Each of the heads, mounted on a small pillar, gets an absurd name to match its appearance, like “King Cerdic, Eater of Mutton” and “Eadbald, The Unready.”

In an email, McCandless said that in addition to her concern about social issues, she’s also had to cope in the last few years with the death of her mother. But if much of that was cause for sadness, she says, she also sees humor as an important “coping mechanism.”

“I think my goal is to have viewers be able to have a moment of levity while not totally escaping our reality,” she added. “This is what I saw in Nanny's work as well — taking the reality of the pain in the world but then creating a new world from that ... to usher viewers through a side door, an escape but not too much of an escape. It's a tricky business.”

Dark undertows

Vonnegut, the younger daughter of the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, says she and McCandless worked separately on their art, not sharing pieces, as they felt confident that what they developed would remain true to the connection they’d already established — and that they were plumbing similar themes, what she calls “dark undertows hiding under flowery scenes and cartoonish figures.”

She says she and McCandless were coming from a similar page when they assessed the overall atmosphere in the country during Donald Trump’s presidency. “I think we were both feeling distraught, that things were really depressing,” Vonnegut said. “But we also felt making art was the best way to deal with those feelings.”

Sometimes those feelings first revealed themselves in the art. “Pete’s View,” an oil painting Vonnegut did in memory of a friend who died this year pre-pandemic, features a view of a small cottage, a woman in a slip visible through a window; a flower garden, with odd items like a miniature elephant seen in the mix, frames a stone path leading to the front door.

The whole image is slightly off-kilter, like many of Vonnegut’s paintings and prints, but what really grabs the viewer’s eye is the fiery red sky and background, as if the painting is seen through a filter.

“I just put that red layer down and went from there,” said Vonnegut. “It surprised me.”

As she writes in exhibit notes, “Jen recently told me she was feeling blue and it was affecting her work. How my work is being affected isn’t exactly clear, but there is a lot of red and fire in it, which might suggest anger. I’ll go with anger.”

One might also read that — or just feeling unsettled — in “Boots,” a painting of a bluish naked woman standing in a nighttime forest wearing just her birthday suit and a pair of hiking boots. A peacock sits on the branch of a tree next to her, and the woman’s hair — or is it a wig? — gives off a strange glow.

But Vonnegut offers plenty of humor, such as her print “Clowns in the Wilderness,” which could be part The New Yorker’s weekly competition to write a caption for an untitled cartoon. Three clowns stand or sit by a cooking fire near a tent, a small pond and starlit sky behind them.

Vonnegut’s largest painting, “Hello in There,” also raises a smile, this one of simple good cheer. It’s a 56-panel grid depicting members of the Young@Heart Chorus, their backing band and sound engineers, and chorus director Bob Cilman, all in the midst of a Zoom rehearsal, something the elderly singing group has been doing since March.

Vonnegut says she and a friend were installing the show on Saturday, Nov. 7, the day the Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election. Main Street in Northampton erupted into a spontaneous celebration, and the artist added a quick line to the exhibition statement that expressed her hope for a new era.

“The grief that framed so much of our work,” she wrote, “can also now be framed with tears of relief.”

“Seeing Red, Feeling Blue” can be seen at the A.P.E. Gallery through Dec. 13.  Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and noon to 8 p.m. on Friday. Visitation is limited to eight people at a time, and face masks are required. More information is available at apearts.org and 413-586-5553.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.