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THE BRATTLEBORO GAMBIT: B. Lynch's Reds and Greys Play Mini-Chess in Vermont

(Fenced, B. Lynch, 2017)

Though I can never find an authentic source for the quote, Chekhov is claimed to have said that “the business of art is to undermine the assumptions of the bourgeoisie.” Perhaps that’s why he insisted on calling his plays comedies: comedy is theatre’s subversive genre, portraying upper social classes and their institutions as corrupt and making enormous fun of them. Class-conscious comedies, making the enduring, implicit tension between the haves and have-nots an overt plot point, are at least as old as the French playwrights Moliere, Marivaux, and Beaumarchais. We now regard their plays as quasi-prophetic, since the French Revolution and the fall of the monarchy followed not long after.

(Yellow Palace, B. Lynch, 2017)

B. Lynch is a Boston-based mixed-media artist whose speciality is class-conscious comedy. She first introduced the figures and motifs of what she has called “the New Gilded Age” in 2012 after the onset of the Occupy Movement. Most of her work in the ensuing years has been on the visual/theatrical imagination-scape of the Reds and the Greys, who are her representatives of the one-percent, portrayed as Grand Siecle aristocrats in crimson-and-gold regalia, and the 99-percent, mostly clad in shapeless grey pajamas like prison camp inmates and using castoff cooking pots as hardhats.

In her new show. "Pull Back the Curtain,” Lynch’s mixed-media spectacle is cleverly installed behind the old ticket windows of the former train station that since 1972 has been the Brattleboro Art Museum. The show’s title suggests peek-a-boo, unmasking, the portal between concealment and exposure, and in fact the new installation, significantly scaled down from the artist's recent exhibits in Worcester and Exeter, offers fresh and surprising insights into the private lives of Lynch’s characters, especially the Reds.

(Carpenter's Shop (diorama), B. Lynch, 2020)

The ticket windows tease two new dioramas that one can peep into from opposite sides, the drab home of the Carpenter, a Grey, and the palatial manse of a new Red character, the Writer.

Here in the front of the gallery Lynch sets the class juxtaposition theme that runs through the show.

(Detail, The Palace (diorama), B. Lynch, 2020)

As we peek behind the Writer’s curtains, we see well-appointed rooms replete with fine furniture and art-hung walls; there is a cello and a harpsichord or pianoforte that looks encased in tiger maple. Someone is a music lover.

Previously, Lynch’s portrayals of the Reds have been of self-inflated and self-regarding buffos. But in his study the Writer has several letters in process and volumes piled on his desk. In a portrait elsewhere in the show, his nose is buried deep in a book. With this new diorama and character, Lynch poses a subversive proposition: One-Percenters may have interior lives.

(Details, The Palace (diorama) and Carpenter's Shop (diorama), B. Lynch, 2020)

In the Carpenter’s front yard is a fellow Grey, the Miner, hauling a wheelbarrow of rocks: one can only imagine in what ghetto this house is sited. Also, it has no curtains. The only things hanging on the Carpenter’s walls are the tools of his trade – except, in his spartan bedroom above a thin mattress, a poster for a puppet show, one that promises “Action, Adventure, and Melodrama.” (That show can be found elsewhere in the gallery, in a new toy theatre called “Red Stage.” All the characters it features are Reds.)

(Details, Carpenter's Shop (diorama), B. Lynch, 2020)

As always with B. Lynch, the gallery sparkles with whimsy and visual wit. A good comedic playwright, she does not lecture or wag a didactic finger. Her rendering of her world's legal tender is a perfect example of her impish, provocative humor...

Funny Money, B. Lynch, 2017

...a reminder that wealth, the very thing that divides the classes, is itself based on a social contract. "In God We Trust," or in this case, "In Reds."

The viewer can see the characters in multiple juxtaposed representations: linoleum block prints, gouache portraits, and cleverly rendered two-dimensional scenes in deeply beveled frames (photos at top) where the characters are overlaid on realistic backgrounds ranging from baroque Vienna to post-industrial America.

(Linoleum block prints of Greys and Reds, B. Lynch, 2013-2020)

There is also, behind a diaphanous curtain, a three-seat alcove where three videos are on view. Here another metaphor muscles its way into the theatrical comedy. The checkered game board has been a recurring Lynch trope for her whole career; she once created a 32-piece three-dimensional chess game of her characters from the court of Folly and the rival forces of anti-Folly at the Duxbury Art Complex Museum.

The three videos in Brattleboro are titled “Chess Set: Games 1, 2, and 3.” Nearby is a café table with two small chairs and a conventional chess board; visitors are encouraged to play. What the artist may be up to here is the implication that behind, or rather beneath, the comedy and theatrical antics, there is a very old game playing out about positioning for power and survival. Mini-chess is a form of the original that features a smaller board (4x4 or 5x5) and reduced men, but there are still as many pawns as major pieces: an apt metaphor for this show.

(Detail, Chess Set: Game 1, video by B. Lynch, 2021. Link below to artist's website)

But lurking beneath the board it is always possible there is a rogue lying in wait to upend the whole shebang. At about 1:49 in the above video, on the wall of a factory where the Greys work, you can see the signature graffiti of my personal favorite characters in this Lynch miniverse: the insurrectionist group the Red Baiters. I wish they were more present in this clever and piquant show, but the times and the place being what they are, I suspect they will probably show up.

(Graffiti Red Baiters Bricks, B. Lynch)

After all, Vermont's junior senator is a Socialist....

(Don't neglect to take a free button of your favorite character....)

“B. Lynch: Pull Back the Curtain” will be on view through February 13, 2022. The Brattleboro Art Museum, 10 Vernon Street, is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10-4 (closed January 1, July 4, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25). Admission is on a “pay-as-you-wish” basis. Face coverings are required.


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