Bill Craig, "A Do-It-Yourself Art Museum"

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William Craig, Staff Writer, “A Do-It-Yourself Art Museum,” The Valley News, Thursday, 27 May, 1993, p. 29.

This photograph by Slugo Maneshevitz Gagarin is included In the first exhibition at The Main Street Museum Of Art, opening Saturday evening in White River Junction.

Announcing an exhibition of hand-color-ized, artistically matted and framed Panoramic Photographic Views; being the work of the photographic artist Slugo Maneshevitz Gagarin; illustrating the artist’s progress, both physical and spiritual, through the world, particularly the eastern and midwestern United States.

That’s from the invitation, a card featuring a photograph of a framed photograph. The photograph shows a stuffed polar bear in a glass case in a room identified by a floor mat as Ole’s Big Game Lounge. The frame is covered in white fur.
Here’s something from the press release:

The Main Street Museum of Art is very pleased to announce its grand opening in the old Lena’s Lunch Building at 42 South Main Street, White River Junction, Vermont...(on) Saturday the. 29th of May, 1993 from five til nine in the evening...
Although making his home in Boston Massachusetts, Mr. Gagarin takes up his summer residency in the basement of the Main Street Museum where he has a cot and more than sufficient labor awaiting him frame-making and caring for our substantial colony of feral cats...(In) sugaring season last year, the artist was discovered wandering over Dunham Hill...having lost all knowledge of his past life...

When you’ve read more than your share of earnest press releases and artist’s statements touting the artist’s and artwork’s global relevance, ecological synergy and profound respect for Native American beliefs, it is a pleasure to read some publicity by someone who is pulling your leg instead of her or his own.

A pre-grand opening visit to the Upper Valley’s newest gallery—sorry, Museum—before the grand opening confirms the reader’s impression of refreshingly un-self-serious endeavor. Pulling up to the former Lena’s Lunch location, it’s easy to see that 42 South Main is in a state of transition. Of course, it always was. The imitation red-brick asphalt shingles on the building’s sides never matched the various paint schemes evident on its facade. Even the old Lena’s Lunch establishment–now resident up on Sykes Avenue—seemed both timeless and makeshift, like a do-it-yourselfer friend’s eternal makeover of an old house.

The building’s outer walls are as various as ever, but now the freshly washed storefront window sports red letters announcing the museum’s arrival. Visible within are big framed photographs, hanging on walls and stacked on the floor. The polar bear is there. So is what appears to be a shot of a giant rodent, standing tall as the lampposts on an urban street, wearing a top hat and carrying an umbrella.

Proprietor and museum director David Fairbanks Ford is happy to greet all comers—by appointment, please—and he’s there at the door to welcome you in. A very personable young man, he quickly offers enough information and opinions to fuel several conversations:

He is a shoot of the Gillingham family tree, descended from the founder of Woodstock’s F.H. Gillingham & Sons hardware and grocery institution, but raised in Boston. The museum did indeed come equipped with a family of feral cats. He lives in New York City’s Soho district but wanted to get out of the city in summertime and find cheap studio space. The bluegrass band playing at the opening is coming up from Boston, and their name is Willy’s Inbred Mountaineers. Ford is a musician himself. “How many museum directors do you know who can play the ukulele?” he asks.

While talking, it’s hard not to notice the plaster saint with holy infant in arms–both sporting coonskin caps–and the enormous allegorical canvases on the walls. Ford talks about his work restoring churches and other buildings in the city, and points out photographs of an uncle who painted murals and of St. Paul’s, a New York church the uncle worked on. St. Paul’s is soon to be restored, Ford says, and then perhaps more people will appreciate, the murals, the Stanford White altar and other beauties of the spiritual home of the Paulist Fathers, America’s first religious order, founded by a Transcendentalist contemporary of Thoreau and Hawthorne who converted to Roman Catholicism...

There’s so much else to talk about—the unexpected number of talented artists in the area, the museum’s summer schedule (already booked a year or two ahead), the history of Railroad Row—that it’s hard to settle down to a hard look at the Slugo Maneshevitz Gagarin show.

It isn’t all hung, so it’s not fair to talk, but what Gagarin is up to is not unprecedented: these are mostly photographs in the well-worn ‘80s genre of North American roadside oddities. Hand-tinted in antique postcard shades, they celebrate such strange and tacky phenomena as the aforementioned cocktail lounge polar bears and giant replica rodents, as well as a World War ii-era bomber looming in a Canadian civic garden, a toppled, beheaded concrete brontosaurus and the inevitable Elvis impersonator.

What makes Gagarin’s stuff far more interesting than most others is the fine composition of these icons into odd shaped multi-image, composite panoramas. There’s a great landscape shot of a roadside fishing hole on a curve somewhere in Transylvania County, North Carolina: no retro-hip icons, just an arc of images sweeping through visual memory. Superb framing supports each photograph, making of this and every other piece not just an image but an art object.

The opening on Saturday is scheduled for 5 to 9 p.m., with music starting at 8. Refreshments will be served. If it is anywhere near as much fun as Gagarin’s work and the museum’s public existence to date, it will be a party not to miss.