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Slayton: Wyeth Vertigo

Tom Slayton

Death and disorientation haunt the paintings of three generations of Wyeths in “Wyeth Vertigo,” the new and important exhibition at the Shelburne Museum.

The central image in the show is Andrew Wyeth’s monumental painting, “Soaring,” which depicts three turkey vultures in flight, circling high above a rural landscape. The image is arresting, in visual terms alone. Andrew Wyeth is a master draftsman, and both the birds and the fields they soar above are strikingly lifelike. But this huge painting also feels slightly ominous. What is the subtext here? (There always seems to be a subtext in a Wyeth painting.) Why are these carrion-eaters circling that farmhouse far below? Is there someone dead within it? Is there going to be someone dead? The painting doesn’t give us any answer. Despite its exacting realism, it embodies a mystery. A dark mystery.

Other paintings in the show have similar overtones. A crow lies dead in a barren winter field; a drowned fisherman’s boat drifts empty, bobbing in the waves; a hideous scarecrow sporting a huge raven’s head overlooks a darkening Maine seaside. These images tell us -- sometimes subtly, sometimes not -- that the world is out of joint. There’s a frightening reality behind the seemingly placid surfaces of life. Beauty is superficial and nature is not benign; it’s brutal. People’s lives are often miserable, sometimes tragic.

Interestingly, this air of ominous disharmony can be seen in the paintings of each of the three generations of Wyeths represented in the show: Grandfather, N.C. Wyeth; father, Andrew Wyeth; and son, Jamie Wyeth. Quite often, the edgy feeling is created by a distorted perspective or unusual point of view. Hence the title of the Shelburne exhibition and its pervading motif: “Wyeth Vertigo.”

“All the Wyeths like to make you dizzy,” art critic Joyce Hill Stoner once said. This show suggests strongly that she’s right. For example, Jamie’s painting, “Spindrift,” depicts a small lighthouse in a raging storm – from high above. The tiny island seems hardly able to survive the unleashed power of the sea. It’s a picture that can make you dizzy, and it’s done on purpose, to show nature’s vast, uncaring power, and to throw you off balance, even as it draws you in.

This is not to say that every image in “Wyeth Vertigo” is grim or unpleasant. In many ways, it’s a beautiful show. But it’s not a show that lets the viewer off easily. Even N.C. Wyeth’s striking painting, “Dark Harbor Fishermen,” which is formally composed and brilliantly painted, also expresses the power of a fate that may or may not care about us. The picture shows four men unloading a boatful of herring amid flocking gulls. The men have the dignity and bearing of classical statues – but their faces are hidden: they labor anonymously, caught in the web of their lives, toiling against the dark waters of dark harbor.

All three Wyeths are powerful painters and this is a powerful show. It will remain at Shelburne Museum until October 31 .

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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