Swords into Plowshares, Plowshares into Swords. Hartford Advocate. Patricia Rosoff. 2003.

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Swords into Plowshares, Plowshares into Swords
Artists who gave Collinsville a creative spark exhibit in Canton

- September 11, 2003

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.
These days, 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 long-time friends.

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 work.

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 Century."

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.

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