TAKE BACK VERMONT! struck me as a timely, relevant and even important type of gallery show because, among other things, it helps us better understand how social change really often happens in the USA, shines a light on how political or cultural enemies develop and are labeled by each other and how a historical narrative often gets written. TAKE BACK VERMONT! is the story of the ‘Woodchucks’ (native-born, rural folks from Vermont) and the Flatlanders (new, liberal, urban arrivals to the state) and their apparent clash of ideologies in 2000 in the first state to legalize gay marriage. Zieher Smith & Horton uses this historical confrontation as a type of ‘theme’ to present a show about the relationship between art and activism and the conflict of cultural values.
Of course, some guy with a lawyer started the commotion (actually it was 6 people with lawyers and various gay-rights organizations sponsoring them). Indeed, that’s part of what seems to have made the “Woodchucks” so angry. To the Woodchucks, non-Vermont folks (probably from New York or Boston), who could afford going all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, imposed their viewpoint and values on others through judicial fiat. To the Woodchucks, there was no public discussion, no public debate – some folks went to the Vermont Supreme Court and the court ruled that the Common Benefits Clause (all citizens are guaranteed all rights equally) of the Vermont Constitution mandated that gay marriage should be allowed. The legislature had no choice but to follow the directive of the Court and pass the first gay marriage law in the USA. Despite the fact that voting against gay marriage meant violating their oath of office to uphold the Constitution, and despite the fact that many law-makers argued they had no choice but to vote ‘yes’, the vote was still close: 76 – 69.
At the time many of the Woodchucks argued that they weren’t anti-gay. It was the way everything came about that irritated them. They didn’t paint: “Get rid of gay marriage!” on their barns, they painted “TAKE BACK VERMONT!” (which might have meant the same thing to some of them, however). There were, of course, nutty super orthodox, right wing Christian groups that said what you’d expect nutty right wing super Christian groups to say about gay folks, but based on what I’ve been able to discover 14 years down the line, the Woodchucks, in general, might have gotten a bad rap in this whole situation.
Howard Dean (remember him?) faced a backlash and had to work his butt off to get re-elected as Governor and the Republicans took control of the Vermont legislature – but, it was too late. The die was cast and, from what I can tell, to the credit of the people of Vermont, things settled down very quickly (perhaps proving that the perceived homophobia among the rural folks of Vermont may have been part of an overestimated caricature). The strategy was – gain a beachhead (previous attempts in Hawaii and Alaska had failed), show people that the world wasn’t going to end with gay marriage, and then pick up more states. The pro-gay-marriage folks had gotten their foot in the door, they had a beachhead from which to move forward, and the rest is becoming history as now 36 states allow gay marriage.
Three artists at Zieher Smith & Horton were selected to present work under this TAKE BACK VERMONT! theme.
Aaron Spangler is a Minnesota artist who creates sculptures out of Basswood. As has been pointed out in previous reviews of his work, he is using a technique which bucks a number of contemporary trends in art. He also does not seem to be appealing to any urban sensibilities. Or, if he is appealing to an urban sensibility, it’s the sensibility that most of us would like to abandon city life and go back to the country. To me his sculptures present a certain type of élan vital inherent in the lifestyle of rural living which is absent and perhaps even disparaged among some urbanites. The countryside becomes an ideological fortress of solid values derived from a direct experience with the land and nature and the processes of deriving sustenance for all from the land. When we engage these huge ‘monolithic’ sculptures of Basswood we get a sense of the richness of experience and meaning that has been abandoned in urban life.
Peter Gallo is actually from Vermont and has become well known for using various found images and texts to present work which is highly charged and engaging. Some of his pieces in the show seem to deliberately contrast the political with the highly personal and openly question the right of others to regulate forms of sexual behavior or inter-personal relationships. For instance, he has an image from the New York Times Magazine of the conservative politician Mike Huckabee, in which he has blotted out much of Huckabee’s face with white paint, next to a very elegantly drawn image of one man licking another man’s cock. In another piece we see a letter he has received from a US Senator with red drops on it, next to a drawing of a man deeply engrossed in performing a blow job on another man.
Ellen Lesperance is an artist from the Pacific Northwest who follows and/or does research on political demonstrations and protests and, based on photos of some of the female protesters she has seen, draws and then recreates the sweaters that some of these protesters were wearing at the time of the protests they participated in. She seems to start out with a gouache and graphite on tea stained paper drawing followed, often, by a recreation of the sweater itself. The sweaters are not overtly political – in fact, they are just sweaters that were probably not chosen as a way to one day represent the person’s ideology during a political protest. But the sweaters, in their various patterns, reflect, in some way, the deep humanity of folks who feel so strongly about an issue that they are willing to take to the streets and assume various risks to make their voices heard. These are just ordinary sweaters purchased for various utilitarian reasons, which now take on the aura of battle insignia. These are ordinary sweaters worn by ordinary people who became extraordinary when pushed a little too far. Maybe these sweaters represent the raw and inherent activism that resides in each of us and which is just waiting for an opportunity to be converted from the potential to actual.