|PHOTOS COURTESY CANTON
|Faces in the mirror: Peter
McLean's 6-foot charcoal, "The Acculturation of Dr.
Charles Eastman (Ohyessa)." |
|Bob Bengtsson, whose work appears
above, occupied the Collinsville Company from 1967-1971,
one of the first of its tenants.
Collinsville is a well-known artists' colony. This small town, well
west of Hartford out Route 44, was once a thriving manufacturing
center, dominated by the redbrick factory buildings that perched up
above the river that bisects the town. Until the mid-1950s, when a
flood wreaked havoc on the place, the Collins Company did a brisk
global business in axes, adzes and machetes. The company never fully
recovered from the flood, however, and shut down for good in 1965.
Enter Thomas Perry, who in 1968 purchased the abandoned factory,
dubbed it The Collinsville Company, and offered its vast, airy (if
somewhat crude) spaces for lease to artists, craftspeople and small
entrepreneurs. As such, to this day, it remains the matrix of the
town's altered definition of "industry."
Among the first of the artisans to take advantage of the low rent
and voluminous spaces were Bob Bengtsson, Christopher Horton, Wick
Knaus, Peter McLean and David Robbins. Though each of the artists
have maintained independent artistic careers above their employment
-- Horton, Knaus and McLean all taught at the college level, Knaus
at the University of South Dakota, the other two at the Hartford Art
School, University of Hartford; Bengtsson and Robbins were
industrial designers -- all have returned to this corner of the
world (some never left) to put together a show at the Canton Gallery
on the Green called "Factory Five."
The title acknowledges that the reputation that Collinsville has
attained as a haven for artists may have begun with this group of
Though most of the group vacated years ago, the five have
maintained their friendship over four decades. Most are now retired.
"Between us, we're 339 years old," says Robbins, "most of them we
spent with paint brushes." But this show, if anything, is the
testament to the vibrancy of long careers spent engaged in creative
The Gallery on the Green is a creaky, well-worn
space. One is greeted at the entrance to the exhibit with a
friendly, tapered-leg table by Robbins, richly finished in deep
tones of gauzy, mottled paint. (There's a wonderfully quirky,
knobby-legged companion to this in the big gallery that's even
better.) Around it are arrayed a grouping of small works, notably
the velvety etchings and pen-and-ink drawings by Wick Knaus --
cityscapes, mostly, full of thready detail and singing transitions.
In the larger gallery space, Knaus continues, paired with
Bengtsson along the lefthand side of the room. Each deals
straightforwardly with the observed world -- and in many cases, the
very world of Collinsville rendered during their time in this corner
of the world, before they set out for the west. Bengtsson's dramatic
architectural pastels are a steady foil for Knaus' somehow more
introverted renderings of tumbling urban vistas.
But where Bengtsson stands back and lets us have it -- his images
are all sweep and elbow, often brooding juxtapositions of shape and
layered vibrancy of color -- Knaus sets us as if at the top of a
slope, looking down and into the journey he provides. The power in
these pieces generates from a small-motor intensity. They are rich
and tender at the same time, as if they were knit of tendrils of
fine wire -- or mohair.
Knaus' most recent work, most of it in watercolor, beautifully
orchestrates its color -- muted grayish greens predominate, with
sparing, perfectly timed punches of pure red, yellow, blue, orange,
tossed like a handful of jewels into an overcast day.
Jewel-like too are Robbins' small digital photos, each one as
glowing as stained glass, each one a smack of wonderfully too-loud,
belly-laugh color. No imagery here, per se, just the electric
push-and-pull of one color's "voice" against another -- each one a
love song to the freedom of abstraction, in an intimate scale, with
color so vivid that it backs you up against the wall.
The real power in the show, however, flies between Horton and
McLean. Each of these two has a story to tell, though with McLean
the "language" itself is a match for the meaning. In "The
Acculturation of Dr. Charles Eastman (Ohyessa)" he creates an image
of a Native American in a barber shop with three mirrored faces
glaring back out at him (and us). Drawing doesn't get much better
(or bigger) than this six-foot-tall charcoal.
With Horton, the language changes with the story he tells -- and
by language, here, I'm being specific. Words are a deliberate aspect
of his imagery, interacting with the visual aspects of his work like
yeast in dough. His media are various painting, drawing, assemblage,
whatever does the job.
He sets out, for instance, under the umbrella title "WMDs: Bash,
Slash, Infect," three different takes on "weapons of mass
destruction," treating each like a natural history tableau. In one,
he sets out a rock, incised with the title "Weapon of Mass
Destruction: Europe Neolithic 9000-3000 BC." The second, labeled
across the blade of a Collins machete, contains the words "Weapon of
Mass Destruction: Africa: 1884-Present, Courtesy King Leopold II,
Belgium." The third, a white wool blanket folded over a table is
embroidered with the signature of Thomas Jefferson under the
explanatory "Weapon of Mass Destruction: North America: 18th
Two other works, large in scale, dominate their corner of the
room. Both are multi-panel paintings, one juxtaposes Osama bin Laden
with the CEO of Enron, images of dollar bills and Saddam Hussein;
the other centers on images of African amputees, flanked with
drawings of fashion models emblazoned with diamonds. As a whole,
then, this exhibition, brings these five friends full circle in a
conversation about Collinsville, the world, themselves, where they
went and where they are now. The work makes clear some of their
mutual points of connection, their affinities, and wonderfully,
their differences. It makes for one hell of a friendship, clearly,
and one hell of a party.