Judy Cotton’s Lyman Allyn exhibition on water inspires introspection
A swimming dog and a yellow rubber duck. Those are two subjects that artist Judy Cotton toys with in her newest exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum exploring water, nature and our impact on the two.
Throughout some of Cotton's displayed works, a lively terrier splashes and swims through crashing waves on a beach while not straying too far from his owner. A yellow rubber duck floats nearby in some, its flash of vibrant yellow juxtaposed with the artist’s heavy use of blue. The duck’s transitory nature is doubly apparent, as it tosses through the moving water in one painting and is ripped to bits by the now-smiling dog in another.
In the most basic sense, Cotton depicts a fun day on the beach. Under the surface, however, and in the context of the rest of the exhibition, Cotton seems to question the simple act of enjoying a summer day. Will we be able to afford such luxuries in the future?
That’s the question at play throughout “Hidden Water: Paintings and Sculpture by Judy Cotton,” an exhibition that seeks to pay homage to the beauty of water and nature at large. Of the hundreds of works on display, which include a wide sampling of mediums (wood carving, sculpture, encaustic, painting, etc.), nature, and its instability, are explored on both broad and minute scales.
In one room, for example, the viewer is presented with sweeping depictions of glaciers, waterfalls, and waves — Cotton’s most colorful meditation on water itself. But in an adjacent room, dozens of exotic butterflies, bats, insects and other creatures, embedded in transparent resin, are presented in precise detail. The juxtaposition of nature in both settings encourages viewers to contemplate how humans' impact can affect something as substantial as a glacier and something as small as an insect. Wasp nests, for example, are also heavily explored — functioning societies that are, perhaps, on the fringe of extinction.
But water is the overarching theme pulling the show together — which has enchanted Cotton since she was a child growing up in the Western Australian desert.
“We collected rainwater, and we could drink that,” Cotton said about her childhood during a phone interview Wednesday. “The other water, which was kind of dirty, was used to wash the dishes or to take a bath. And if you did that, you saved it all to put it in the garden.”
“Sometimes kids in these desert towns would get beyond school age without ever having seen rain,” she said. “So it’s always been a fascination for me.”
Cotton, who was born in Australia in 1941, is an internationally recognized artist who has held 35 solo shows and participated in over 70 group exhibits across the world. She lived in South Korea and Japan in the 1960s, later moving to the United States in 1971. From 1974 to 1993, Cotton worked as the New York contributing editor for Vogue Australia, covering New York and the art world while also pursuing a career as an artist.
Since permanently moving to Lyme in 2008 (she and her late husband, Yale Kneeland, semi-permanently moved to town in the early '80s while also living in New York City), Cotton says she has continued to indulge in that particular interest through her art — one that was perhaps fueled by her house's location next to the Connecticut River (a constant presence, she explains, that is “fast moving through most of the year” and “frozen solid in the winter”).
“Of the Earth’s surface, only two-and-a-half percent of Earth’s water is drinkable. We have to take a shower, we have to do the washing, we have to run the tap and brush our teeth, and we just don’t think about our fresh water while others have to walk miles and miles for water,” Cotton said.
“I wanted to draw your attention to global warming and water but also lead you through the museum’s really beautiful grounds, so one could understand that this place is really a treasure.”
Of her outside installations, there is, the towering boat, pieced together by driftwood collected by Cotton outside her Lyme home, that greets visitors as they pull into the museum parking lot. Nearby that is also a dried streambed installation (dedicated to Cotton’s late husband) that will permanently remain on the campus.
“I kind of want you to hurt,” Cotton said. “Someone complained to me once, saying, ‘Where is all the rubbish and the bottlecaps and all that?’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to hurt if you see that. You’re only going to hurt if it’s beautiful and you’re going to lose it.’”
On that note, there is also Cotton’s trough fountain installation carved from a tree stump off to the west side of the museum grounds. Water from the stump filters into an open bamboo pipe that winds down a hill into a wetlands area overlooking the Deshon-Allyn House. The water from the pipe then pours into a waterwheel, forcing it to turn. Next to it stands a wooden Japanese bridge, also built by Cotton and her assistants. It’s here that the quiet beauty of moving water endures, especially considering that, without Cotton, it wouldn’t exist.
If you go
WHAT: "Hidden Water: Paintings and Sculpture by Judy Cotton”
WHERE: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
HOURS: Through Nov. 11; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.
ADMISSION: Adults, $10; seniors and students (over 18), $7; students under 18, $5; active military personnel, $7; children under 12, free
CONTACT: (860) 443-2545, www.lymanallyn.org