LINCOLN — Would it surprise you to know that buttoned-up New England, land of the Puritans and their boat-shoe wearing spawn, has a long history of utopian schemes? It shouldn’t. Idealized societies tucked into the thick Northeastern woods are as foundational to local mythmaking as turkey on Thanksgiving. You might not think of a cornerstone like “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau’s chronicle of his solitary pondside idyll, as part of the plan — “society,” typically, means more than one. But the book tucks neatly into the overriding notion: of living outside the strictures of convention, where one might “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” That’s the utopian promise: something better, deeper, more.
Eight months into a pandemic life of perpetually less, a dose of utopian bounty is a welcome daydream. “Visionary New England,” an exhibition at the just-reopened deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, is such an escape. It starts small but ultimately feels cosmic, with fervent imagination and fever dreams both rooted in earth and stretching to the stars. A dozen thoroughly contemporary artists rub up against various out-there notions mined from local turf. (Vitrines sprinkled throughout the galleries link agrarian communes like Fruitlands — established by Amos Bronson Alcott, father to Louisa May — to experimental psychology, psychic metaphysics, and telepathy.) Truth is often stranger than fiction; I had my face pressed against the glass, trying to read things like a paper delivered in 1956 to a meeting of the Psychic Research Society, just as much as I spent time with the art itself. That’s a sign of curatorial success. When the context feels as important as the content, you’re on to something.
If you believe, as I do, that exhibition-making is as much about storytelling as discrete experiences, piece by piece, then “Visionary New England” is for you. Here, you’ll find both — sensual pleasure, narrative thread, loopy fantasia, provocative repudiations of the world as it is. Utopia, whether a place or a state of mind, is predicated on the darker premise of escape — if the world were more perfect, who would feel the need to build idealized societies apart from it? Ideal, of course, depends on your point of view, of which you’ll find many here. They stretch from the grand to the personal, from whole orders to a utopia of one.
A small gallery serves as a primer: Josephine Halvorson’s spare paintings — of a felled branch wrapped with pink surveyor’s tape, of a torn “no trespassing” sign pinned to a rotting trunk — are made in the woods near her home in the Berkshires and often painted in one sitting, in solitary communion. Caleb Charland’s spiraling, intimately cosmic photographs are visual poetry, the stuff of a waking dream. (That includes one of his “Solar Plexus” series, for which he lies on the ground on a clear night, camera on his belly with the shutter open for hours, capturing the movement of the heavens at the same time it records his breath.) There is something lovely about finding right here alongside them Marsden Hartley’s “Rock Doxology,” one of the many paintings he made in the 1930s of Dogtown — an abandoned, deeply creepy settlement in Gloucester. It brought darkness to the enterprise, idealism with a sell-by date.
Up on the top floor, you’ll find a fellow traveler in Paul Laffoley, whose dystopic visions — dizzyingly intense schematic paintings synthesizing architecture, mathematics, and technology with spiritualism and philosophy — are another dark side of utopian gambit. They overwhelm with exhaustive crazy-logic, berate with densely ordered insanity. Far from the sunshine of idealism, this is the rabbit hole — a deep well of paranoia and thwarted visions, a prison of unrequited dreams.
Natural light spills into the museum’s main gallery space with vaulted ceilings. The room glows, austere and serene. Here you’ll find captivating little sidelines to the main event: Josiah Wolcott’s beatific “Brook Farm With Rainbow,” from 1845. A marble bust by Harriet Hosmer, a well-known New England sculptor of the 19th century who reportedly showed “psychic tendencies” beginning in childhood. “Veiled Future,” a shrouded figure by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, a Framingham-born protégé of Auguste Rodin whose meaty sculptures elevated Black figuration toward the spiritual. And books — so many books! — spanning everything from an 1838 Alcott volume on veganism and Andrija Puharich’s “Beyond Telepathy” from 1962 to B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two,” a Thoreau-inspired treatise from 1948 that became a veritable bible for the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and ’70s, spawning at least a dozen communes all on its own. (To close that thought: The vitrine with “Walden Two“ sits alongside a set of hand-made pencils by Thoreau himself.)
What did all this daydreaming amount to? Maybe a better question is: To whom did these daydreams appeal? Communes most frequently disbanded; some morphed into cults. (A few stumble on, blithely apart from the big ugly world.) It’s telling, though, that the biggest footprints in the show belong to Kim Weston, who is part Mohawk, and Sam Durant. Weston’s big, bright photo prints are radiant blurs, capturing powwow dancers in motion. They evoke 19th-century “spirit photography,” when light bleeds in negative processing lent a ghostly presence. Nearby, a mound of tiny red pouches stuffed with tobacco is on display, their sweet, acrid scent heavy in the air, making up “15,000 Missing Flowers, 15,000 Prayers,” a tribute to the missing and murdered Indigenous women whose numbers grow day by day.
If the powwow-dancing spirit pictures shift, suddenly, from light to dark, I think you’re getting the point. Fantasy ideals, Weston seems to say, are a luxury available to those whose complaints with the old-world order are relatively minor. Durant, whose work helps expose the privilege of all this blue-sky dreaming, is on the same track. In 2016, he created an installation for Concord’s Old Manse, not far from Walden Pond, all of it an epicenter of the 19th-century’s transcendentalism craze. Not privy to the benefits of such spiritual enlightenment, Durant made clear, was the community of freed slaves living in the woods near the pond long before Thoreau, where basic survival took precedence over vibrational resonance.
At the deCordova, Durant brings elements of his Old Manse project, a fictional utopia merging ideals impossible in their own time. “Transcendental (Wheatley’s Desk, Emerson’s Chair)” is a ghostly communion between the Black 18th-century poet Phyllis Wheatley and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the icon of American self-reliance and the leader of the transcendental movement; chair and desk coalesce, an unlikely meeting of spirits. Behind it is Durant’s simple wooden wall, evocative of the homes the first free Black Americans built near the pond during the Revolutionary War. On the bare planks is a stanza from Kevin Young’s poem “A Frieze for Trayvon Martin,” one of four works by Black poets Durant commissioned for the piece. (Another, by former Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges, is on the gallery wall.)
Durant’s piece itself is called “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world ... Build therefore your world,” a paraphrase of an Emerson essay on the freest of free will. Ironic? Yes indeed. Look at Durant’s house and ask yourself what kind of world might flow from it. Guess what: You’re living in it. For all the lofty ideals, is it any wonder we’re still stuck here on the ground?
VISIONARY NEW ENGLAND
At the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln. Through March 14. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org