Sometimes you have to leave home to discover surprises right in your own back yard. Such was the case with artist Angus McCullough, a Vermont-based artist I met this spring at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
The town of Bennington, Vermont, may be best known for its liberal arts college, towering stone obelisk, Blue Benn Diner, and decades-old croquet match at the Park-McCullough House, where locals, dressed all in white, gather to discuss town politics while fervently knocking wooden balls through wickets. But here beside Robert Frost’s grave and the dubious, painted moose sculptures, contemporary artists like writer Mary Ruefle, Willard Boepple, and McCullough are artfully dodging the New-England-cliché sand traps.
McCullough is hardly the first artist to flee New York City in search of space, quiet, and cheaper studio rent, but what sets his move apart is a deep, ongoing dialogue with this historic New England town—a place that has been both “home” and a “home away from home” for many generations of McCulloughs. Perhaps what is most striking about Angus’ art is the way he embraces traditional skills like carpentry, sewing, basket weaving, boat building, drawing, and collecting and uses them to explore ideas that are both exciting and current.
And there is humor too. At his upcoming show at Buoy gallery in Kittery, Maine, visitors may find a traditional coiled basket made of nylon rope and a common plastic shopping bad with the words THANK YOU. HAVE A NICE DAY outlined in red thread carefully hand-stitched by the artist.
In one of my favorite video pieces, McCullough takes the long-standing, New England tradition of ice skating on frozen ponds and lakes to a hilarious extreme (you can watch the video in the above slideshow).
His photography series The Bushes of Bennington County is a rift on the sentimental novel The Bridges of Madison County, in which a National Geographic photographer falls in love with a married woman while photographing bridges in Madison County, Washington. But McCullough is interested in shrubbery, not bridges, and his images, when taken as a whole, comprise a humorous and poignant catalog of human neglect, aspiration, and absurdity.
It is making (as a concept) that ties McCullough’s diverse catalog together. As an artist surrounded by the “making” traditions of Grandma Moses, Bennington potters, and the often anonymous builders of covered bridges, churches, farmhouses, and grander Victorian estates, the question of what to make and how is a rich vein for an artist who isn’t afraid to question artistic assumptions.
When McCullough frantically traces drifting clouds in his video piece Cloud Study, humorously struggling to keep pace, this is the perfect metaphor for an artist fighting the tide of Sunday painting and realist art. It poses certain questions: what is the role of the contemporary artist today? How does the past relate to the present? Is it possible to simultaneously meet the expectations of the self, a small community, and the larger art world?
McCullough’s current show, Humors, on view at the Bennington Museum through July 27th, wonderfully encapsulates these contrasts between old and new. Visitors who haven’t been to the museum in a while will want to revisit this institution, celebrated for its collection of Grandma Moses paintings, Bennington pottery, and Revolutionary War artifacts.
“While we are probably best known for our more historic collections,” curator Jamie Franklin explains, “we have made a strong commitment to our area’s current cultural landscape, especially so in the last few years. In the last two years, since Robert Wolterstorff joined our team as Executive Director, we’ve both reinvigorated the strengths of our permanent collection,while pushing forward into exciting new territory.”
A striking gallery of works by Bennington modernists (including Willard Boepple, Paul Feeley, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski), a new Alice Neel show (on view through November 2nd), and the exhibit of McCullough’s work are evidence that the museum is moving in the right direction. The collection’s through-line is creativity and Vermont, but Franklin and Wolterstorff seem to recognize that if the museum wants to remain relevant and not grow stale, it must make room for contemporary perspectives like McCullough’s.
I asked Franklin to elaborate on how Angus’ work fits into the museum’s larger collection:
What I think makes Angus and, especially, his work in this show, interesting, from the perspective of Vermont and Bennington in particular, is his insider/outsider relationship to this very unique place. His family has deep historic ties to North Bennington and he spent large parts of his childhood growing up here. I think a good portion of most summers. And now he is living and working here as an artist/one-person think tank full-time. So he knows this place well, with all its quirks and eccentricities.
Yet, he would have probably considered Brooklyn home most of his life. This gives him a particularly valuable distance, that allows him to see that which is most distinctively queer about this town, and Vermont more generally. While North Bennington is filled with all that is stereotypically quaint and progressive about Vermont-covered bridges, white steepled churches, a small artsy college, etc., Angus seems to see past it all to a core that is often overlooked. Both his photographs, Bushes of Bennington County, and his selected short videos, Embodied Realities, interrogate our assumptions and lay bare the everyday tedium and frequent ridiculousness of our environment, with an especial eye for instances of sublime tension between our constructed and natural world. Oh, and its often strangely beautiful at the same time.
I recently paid a few visits to Angus’ Bennington studio and family farm, where the architectural possibilities of an old corn crib have captured the imagination of the artist. The following interview was conducted by email over the course of a few weeks and includes many of the topics Angus and I discussed in person.
The Bushes of Bennington County
Michelle: What is your creative practice like? Do you work in your studio every day? Are there certain routines or rituals that help you get into “your zone”?
Angus: My practice happens in a lot of places, but orbits around my studio. I have ideas for projects all the time and am constantly trying to settle down into them. A good analogy is that I have a very fast metabolism and slow digestion. I come up with lots of projects and the challenge is to harness, expand and finish them.
I am very much about dream life, and try to plan out my days in the evenings before I go to sleep, to plant the ideas in my subconscious a bit because otherwise I might start a day aimlessly and end up on the internet or shuffling around. My daily schedule for the past few weeks has been dependent on waking up really early and heading to the studio before I say or hear any words. It’s sort of an effort to preserve a momentary memory, like trying to remember a dream—I’ve read that dreams are stored in the hippocampus, which happens to be the place where we process most of our waking life, so limiting your experiences on waking up (moving, talking, hearing) helps to preserve the memory. Going to the studio every day also helps this kind of remembering. It’s the place where the accreted gestures live and walking in while the memory is still fresh reinforces the patterns of creating.
My work floats around between concept, manifestation, and the tangible product or evidence. It’s like all the parts of my process are always happening at once: generation, construction, editing, forming, reflection, what have you. It’s like making a meal. I am drawn to some processes and materials consistently: sewing, creating equilibrium, sequence and space-making, certain shapes and relationships. I am obsessed with the mediated ways we view the world (screens, narratives, propaganda) so the camera is often a great tool for exploring that.
I work all the time in my head. Or, almost all the time, and there are many zones. There’s the half asleep brilliant idea space and you better hope you have a pen and paper handy, and then there’s the breakthrough after working 4 hours in the studio “aimlessly.” Music helps me get into that zone, and the smell of the building I walk through to get to my studio, too. It tells me that I am entering my “landscape of permission” as Ann Hamilton calls it. I remember spending time at a residency where my studio smelled like there were 100 oil painters around me—the mineral spirits and paint from many previous residents. That was an amazing mixture. It meant “art” to me, which is a good ballast for delving into making.
Michelle: You grew up in a very creative household. Did you always know you wanted to be an artist of some kind? Were there certain artists, writers, musicians, etc. who had a lasting impact on you and informed your work?
Angus: I was exposed to a ton of art, dance, theater, good thinking and lots of different cuisines as a kid. My parents are both creative polymaths so that’s always been a possibility in my mind. I saw them both change careers while I was in high school and that didn’t register then as out of the ordinary, but now I see it as pretty remarkable. My dad is an actor turned entrepreneur turned actor and my mom is a dancer-choreographer-writer-director. Now they collaborate on theater productions, and use our family home in Vermont as the site for a theater company.
A friend of mine and I have a floating idea to make a documentary about being children of artists. We are both (and know a lot of others), and it seems like the default “career” we learned about was art. We weren’t pushed, necessarily, perhaps excluding constant encouragement to “be yourself”. I resisted it for a while, because how do you rebel against cool parents? It’s hard! An artist’s life was never strange or looked down upon, or questioned. So it feels good to dive into it with some tips and support from my parents.
Back then I was all about everything, all the time. I wanted to play trumpet like Clifford Brown and Chet Baker, exploring four-dimensional geometry and was acting in plays and short films all the time. In the summers I would be up here in VT and ride my bike, sometimes work as a helper for the sculptor Willard Boepple, and swim. There are so many artists that inform my work, but most of them work on me subconsciously, it would be hard to name them all. But let’s say Buckminster Fuller, Steve Reich, Xunzi, Brian Eno, Frank Lloyd Wright and this week I’m ruminating on Lars Wurm, Daniel Eatock, Marcela Armas, Sterling Ruby, the Rural Studio, Teju Cole, Mary Ruefle—all deep feeling thinker-doers.
Michelle: You recently moved from New York City to Bennington. This is an ongoing issue as more and more artists are getting pushed out of expensive urban areas. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working as an artist in Vermont versus New York? How do the communities compare and how has moving influenced your work?
Angus: It’s hard to compare the two places because they are connected in a huge social ecosystem. “The city” is here through vacationers, college students looking to start life and just the gigantic cultural pull it has.
I grew up in Brooklyn and always loved it. But working there after college I found that I was exhausted all the time (which did produce an interesting “glaze”). It generated a lot of ideas and yearning and content with hampered direct action or outlets. Even while working with an artist group, it felt like getting pulled in many different directions.
My move happened for perhaps more personal reasons, but the city can be a brash place to be forming a creative practice. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and didn’t have the space to figure it out. New York, on top of everything else, takes up a lot of brain space. Many people feed off the energy it can provide, but 25 years felt like a good time to take a break.
Moving to Bennington felt luxurious at first—the outdoors, time to myself, space, cheap rent for a studio. It allows me a lot of peace. But the lack of anonymity bothers me sometimes. Finding a community of young artists has been challenging, but there is an overall feeling of wanting to make this place even better than it is, and people volunteer time for the community. I haven’t been able to use it like a retreat because I’m getting swept up into the place-making that’s possible here. It could be an enclave for creative work, a dreamspace for making. There are a lot of big buildings for sale…
For all of this, it’s a stimulating place. You can see generations of habits contend with the wildness of nature—humans forming and pleating their sense of the world. You need to be able to see the world from a slightly alien perspective to stay up on top of it, though.
Michelle: Your art is very much about place. What I enjoy most about your work is the tension between contemporary questions and practices and New England tradition. You explore the “Vermont vernacular” in a very unique way, whether it is through photography, the use of traditional building materials, humor, etc. One project that seems to bring many of these strands together is the Corn Crib project. Can you tell me more about it?
Angus: Context is important to me, and approach projects in a case-specific way rather than through a consistent medium or set process. I think a lot about illuminating the “normal” or ignored spaces we live in a lot, and that comes partly from my training in architecture (address the site) and partly from the german word/concept unheimlich, which is a term coined by Freud to describe something unfamiliar or more roughly “un home-like.” The delicate subversion of the banal can be shudderingly terrifying or eery, funny, you name it. I find that exciting, more so than going straight to the surreal or sublime. Hopefully what happens is that after somebody experiences my work, all these normal spaces and materials seem more charged up with possibility and layers of meaning.
The Corn Crib is about as all-encompassing as I can get at the moment. It’s an agricultural structure that was once part of my family’s farm, is now part of conserved land, and is in need of both rehabilitation and re-interpretation. It’s an architecture project, but also an event project. There’s no current program to the structure, but the surrounding landscape is used for horse pasture and haying. It’s got the possibility of being a time-machine by linking a rich archive of materials to a new approach to landscape. Not a “historical site” but a place for interpreting our interaction with the land.
I’ve been digging through the archives, designing possible new structures and uses, leading restoration build crews, writing grants and planning major restoration work with state funds, giving talks, and generally learning how to be very diplomatic. I’m trying to talk about the timelessness of place, and about the layers of culture that have been here, which extends the usual dialogue. Few people talk about the Native Americans in New England, they prefer to start at the American Revolution. What’s exciting is that this land has uninterrupted documentation from before the French and Indian War all the way up to the present day. This space has been now forever, and that’s not about to change.
In some way, that’s the core behind most of what I’m doing: I find it hard to separate time from space, and most ideas of “history” seem bunk. The earth spins, things move, objects and materials accrete, that’s what “time” is. Working with place is a way to access that, and most often arises naturally or even subconsciously through working on a project.
Angus McCullough: Exhibit Schedule
- Humors on view at the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont, through July 27, 2014
- Prototype will be at Buoy gallery in Kittery, Maine, September 26th to October 31st, 2014
- Work from Humors will be at Burlington City Arts as part of their Of Land and Local show September 19th to November 15th, 2014
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