Lowbrow art hits low point

State Street’s skate shop Channel 1 also serves as an art collective and after-school program, according to its owner, Lou Cox, a New Haven resident.
State Street’s skate shop Channel 1 also serves as an art collective and after-school program, according to its owner, Lou Cox, a New Haven resident. Photo by Amir Sharif.

Sitting in his Church Street studio, found-object sculptor Silas Finch said he identifies as a New Haven artist. But judging by the locations of his recent exhibitions – the most recent of which opened last Sunday in New Canaan, Conn., 37 miles away from the Elm City – it’s hard to guess.

Finch is just one local artist searching for success elsewhere. Seven of New Haven’s underground artists, who use less conventional media such as graffiti, illustrations, comics, cartoons, and pop imagery said they have difficulty finding Elm City venues to exhibit and sell their works, and are forced to exhibit in different cities or move out altogether.

“I came here because it’s affordable, and it’s close to New York,” Finch explained. “But New Haven doesn’t have a lot of opportunities.”

At New Haven’s only comic book shop — Alternate Universe on Chapel Street — co-owner Joe Stinson said his store has not featured the work of a local comic book artist in several years. Though Stinson said the shop made an early effort to support New Haven’s comic book artists in its first three years of business, he said he has found that New Haven buyers are not interested in local work and prefer more commercially established, professionally published comics, like the Spiderman series, for example.

“We used to have a stack of local work right here,” he said, pointing to a shelf at the front of the shop. “Today, we’re not really into local artists,” he said, because they do not sell well.

Reaching into a shelf packed with comics, he pulled out a wrinkled, folded booklet made of construction paper and staples. Inside, the artist had printed his comic on blank pages and glued them together into the green construction paper.

“This is a one-dollar comic by a New Haven artist,” he said. “It’s been here for a long time, you see.”

Stinson said he is unsure of the whereabouts of many of the local artists he formerly carried, but he said he assumes many of them have moved away.

Sket One, a graffiti artist born and raised in New Haven, said he does not expect to stay here much longer.

“There’s nothing inspirational for me about New Haven anymore,” One said. “There’s barely any art community here. I don’t think it’s a big enough city to support it.”

But Lou Cox, a New Haven resident and self-proclaimed art lover, said he has been trying to prevent this decline in underground art for the past five years, with Channel 1, his still growing State Street skate shop and gallery space for underground artists.

Cox described Channel 1 as part art collective, part business, part after-school program. Through the shop, Cox commissions and showcases the work of local artists and youth to help them to find connections and opportunities to pursue their art without having to leave the city. But Cox said opportunities for displaying and selling lowbrow art in the city are still scarce.

“New Haven would have to give [artists] subsidies or exhibition space,” Cox said, explaining how the city may retain its artists. “They don’t really want much — maybe a pat on the back, some credit, some recognition.”

Local artist T.S. Rogers, whose prints are currently on display at Channel 1, said he was surprised by the opportunity to showcase his work, having only worked as a commercial artist.

“A lot of lowbrow artists never think about exhibiting their work because they either don’t want their art to be in coffee shops, or they think they’re not qualified to show in a gallery,” Cox said.

Jeff Muller, director of the gallery Silvermine Guild in New Canaan, where Finch’s work is on display, said New Haven has a reputation as a tough city for emerging, alternative artists.

Finch’s exhibition at the Silvermine Guild will close Feb. 19. T.S. Rogers’s exhibition at Channel 1 will end Jan. 30, and the third installment in the series will begin Feb. 12.

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