State of the Arts
Like any artist, James Vogler  wants the public to see — and, ideally, buy — his work. So you’ve got to wonder why he’d hang it in a place that requires you to show ID, go through an X-ray scanner and check your cellphone. A place where pretty much nobody goes unless they work there, and in fact is not open to the public. But that’s exactly what he’s done. “It’s like going on a plane, but I didn’t have to take my shoes off,” Vogler said, then quipped, “At least I know nothing will get stolen.”
If you’re thinking jail, you’re close. About the law-enforcement part, anyway.
Vogler has a new show in the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, Tristram J. Coffin. The labyrinthine quarters are located on the third floor of the federal building on Elmwood Avenue in Burlington — a building that also houses the post office. If I wanted to see the 30 abstract paintings, I’d have to call ahead for an escort, Vogler explained in an email. Specifically, call Aimee Stearns, whose official job is victim/witness coordinator. Unofficially, she has been the curator of exhibits in the office since 2000.
So arrange a visit through Stearns is exactly what I did one sunny day last week. After clearing the scanner and assuring the two friendly security gents that the wire thingy in my purse was just a cellphone charger, I took the elevator to the third floor. The no-nonsense lobby was warmed by the presence of natural wood and a humongous Norfolk Island pine trying to grow through the ceiling. On one wall hung the obligatory photos of President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Almost immediately, Stearns appeared and led me back into the inner sanctum.
U.S. Attorney world looks a lot like other lawyers’ offices, but bigger. Stearns, a friendly woman with long, honey-colored hair, took me around a circuit of hallways flanked by smaller offices and shelves of legal books. (I got sidetracked reading the bindings of Constitutional journals with subjects such as “search and seizure,” “indictment” and “due process.”) All the hallways merge at a central, circular stairwell. Around this circle and along the hallway walls hang Vogler’s abstract paintings of various sizes.
When she came here 13 years ago, Stearns explained, “The walls were bare. I thought, with the kind of work we do, it would be nice to have something to look at.” Her own office is adorned with an Easter-egg-colored, semi-abstract chalk piece that she says was created by a client.
Vogler, who wrangles dough at his Charlotte home-based business Pizza on Earth during the summer, apparently spends the winter making a whole lot of art. He says most of the paintings on display in Burlington were created in the past eight months.
Vogler calls his oil-on-canvas paintings “studies in color and light” — and, even if that could be said of just about all painting, it’s an apt description. This body of work employs a predominantly gentle palette, though some paintings have darker, more dramatic hues; most are accented with charcoal. The images are utterly nonfigurative, a dance of geometry and mist, hard and soft, opacity and translucence. The yin and yang of the works somehow invite contemplation.
Vogler conveys movement with a variety of painterly techniques — from hurried, barely-covering-the-canvas strokes to layers of contrasting hues to slashes and drips — and with shapes that seem to recede or approach in the composition. This push-pull, too, engages the mind’s eye, but at a level that isn’t quite conscious.
Vogler’s works are reminiscent of de Kooning, but they’re far from knock-offs; they’re collectively softer and dreamier, in part because of Vogler’s nonassaultive color choices, at least in this collection. He seems to simply be in love with the possibilities of pigment and canvas.
Whether they realize it or not, the employees of the U.S. Attorney-Vermont office surely respond on an intuitive level to the paintings that line their halls. And sometimes, Vogler says, people buy a piece. “They do have a high level of sales,” he remarks of the exhibits. “I guess it’s all the lawyers.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "At an Unlikely Gallery in Burlington, Security Prevails."