End of boundaries

“The ways people talk about art are not as complicated as the way we live our lives,” Jaret Vadera ART ’09 tells me. A neon pink tube curled into the word “poser” in cursive fluoresces pertly above his head. It is the only work of art on a long white gallery wall that faces the path between the recently completed sculpture building and Edgewood Avenue.

The only sculpture in “Shifting Shapes — Unstable Signs,” co-curated by Vadera and School of Art Dean Robert Storr, is a fiberglass hyena standing on a stack of logs in the center of the room with a fur pelt draped across its back. Hunched and menacing, it glares over its shoulder at the gallery door, greeting visitors with bared teeth and lifelike eyes.

Despite the hyena, the inaugural exhibition at the School of Art’s new gallery on Edgewood Avenue is not meant to be menacing. In fact, the curators’ goal is the opposite. In an independent tutorial, Storr and Vadera realized they were both frustrated with the restrictive essentialism of the Chelsea-based art scene. Vadera, whose father is Indian, and Storr, who has traveled to India frequently over the last 10 years, conceived of the idea of bringing together works by contemporary artists from India and the Indian diaspora. Vadera and Storr each brought names to the table, ultimately settling on a selection of artworks made by 14 artists working from Toronto to New York to Mumbai.

Both Storr and Vadera insist that the exhibit was not organized around a theme, though strong themes emerge from the complete body of work.

“We had no agenda to politicize,” Storr says, “but we looked at the art that was there and it was political.”

Many of the works deal with boundaries — geopolitical, sexual and physical. Chitra Ganesh turns Indian mythology on its head by redrawing classic tales in comic strip form featuring homoerotic intimacy and masturbation. Tejal Shah’s photographs of hijras (members of the marginalized “third sex” in Southeast Asia) show the subjects enacting their own fantasies — dressed as famous movie stars or performing scenes from traditional mythology in costumes that accentuate their sexual organs.

Within the hyena’s line of sight, right in the center of the longest wall in the show, hangs a remarkable painting by Abir Karmakar of a nude figure (the artist) huddled in the corner of a hotel room. On either side of him, lamps reveal a room glazed in orange light: an undone bed, bottles on the bedside table and an Ethernet cable on the desk. Vadera stands next to me as we look at the flesh on Karmakar’s exposed back, which faces us.

“You know how we have this sick pleasure?” he asks. Yes, I know — for several minutes, neither of us can look away. Cross in front of the painting in three steps and you feel as if you are looking through a fisheye lens, fixating on the bulbous, magnified center of Karmakar’s back and allowing the rest of the frame to slide, distorted, around it.

As sculpture professor Jessica Stockholder puts it, the School of Art is “being gradually knitted together” to form a hub of artistic activity at Yale whose center is somewhere near Green Hall. The new sculpture building on Edgewood Avenue features a state-of-the-art woodshop and a large cargo elevator, while the stately but decrepit Hammond Hall, formerly the sculpture building before its retirement in December, is nearly gutted and scheduled for demolition. The collaboration between Storr and his student Vadera in the School of Art’s new gallery space sets a precedent that will hopefully bring students and teachers together too, not just buildings, and may even accomplish its goal of sending a gust of fresh air onto Yale’s exhibition scene.

Like the British Art Center’s 2007 show, “Art & Emancipation in Jamaica,” which admirably synthesized video, photography, drawing, painting, artifacts and even costumes to tell the rocky story of an island’s history with slavery, “Shifting Shapes” aims to break down boundaries. Exhibits like “Art & Emancipation” are chock-full of objects that represent opposite narratives of the colonial experience packed so close together that boundaries become noticeably uncomfortable.

Contemporary art, on the other hand, doesn’t need to draw our attention to the old lines between different media or cultures. It aims to revolutionize our way of seeing so boundaries are no longer relevant at all, whether broken or intact.

“It’s about bringing people into the present,” Vadera says. He and Storr decided not to include wall text in “Shifting Shapes” so that viewers would be forced to rely on their own eyes for information. As part of an educational institution, the new gallery will provide art students with raw material to look at, not names to memorize. Storr hopes students will have a chance to gain a hands-on experience organizing a gallery show before they begin to deal with shows of their own work. For professors, Storr points out, the gallery can be a place where art academics “get a kick out of getting their hands dirty.”

The old ways of encountering art no longer satisfy a new generation of shape-shifting artists and gallery-goers who do not know which culture to claim as their own. Vadera gives me three questions that drive our generation’s artists: “Being a culture producer, which culture do I produce for? Which do I produce from? What culture do I produce?” The hopes for this gallery can fill more than the space between the new sculpture building and Edgewood Avenue; it has the potential to become a venue for a new kind of curatorial project in Yale’s art scene whose focus is not having a focus.

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