There are two types of strange. A type of strangeness that compels a person to ogle, not because of an object’s value, but because of humanity’s fascination with the atypical. The other type commands attention because of the viewer’s desire to learn the intricacies of this strangeness. The difference between the two is the difference between art with no purpose and art with a message. The works displayed at the “Extraordinary Facilities” exhibit at the John Ely Slade House on Trumbull Street embody the ideal kind of strange.
A sculpture made of steel and hydrostone plaster does not immediately evoke feelings of awe in the viewer, but its seemingly haphazard construction draws the viewer in. Three geometric sections of plaster are held together by steel rods, coming together like ill-fiting puzzle pieces. A placard underneath the sculpture, which displays its title, “She is like her children,” adds another dimension of depth to the work. The way the moldings seem to both stem from the central piece and complete the overall structure communicates the complex story of motherhood. After only a few minutes of observation, the viewer can take away this nuanced message. The experience of viewing Jilaine Jones’ “She is like her children” is indicative of the rest of the exhibit. Most pieces require a deeper level of analysis than just a passing glance, but none are too obscure to the point of being indiscernible. The exhibit is not elitist, but easy to understand.
A painting that was truly thought-provoking was Nathan Lewis’ “Mockingbird.” A typical rainforest scene, the piece depicts sweeping green vines encircling trees that seem to extend into the sky.
A mockingbird peeks out from the side of the composition. A blue frame is painted around the scene, and a hand in the lower right corner holds up a sign that reads, “Anything you think of has already been thought of or done by someone smarter and more talented than you. Can you triumph over this thought?”
The statement is insulting and even frightening. It sends waves of panic as the viewer ponders the validity of such a bold claim. Yet the viewer cannot help but be attracted to the work and take a seecond glance. This moment of hesitation causes the viewer to realize that the trees seem to extend into the sky – and they literally do. The top of the frame is incomplete, covered by the painted branches. A piece that initially insults actually challenges. Even more, it inspires.
One of the most moving pieces was Frank Noelker’s photographic display of two monkeys, Billy and Kenya. Billy’s lined face and hardened stare juxtaposes with Kenya’s friendly gaze. The description to the side of the photographs explains the tragic story of Billy, who bit off several of his own fingers after being used as a subject for animal testing. But the photograph shows none of his injuries, instead capturing the tragedies of Billy’s life with one snapshot of his grimace.
While largely succesful, the exhibition does not completely escape the first type of strangeness. Sabrina Marques’ “Tiempo Sexy” depicts scenes of bestiality using gouache on paper. Enough said.
Perhaps this exhibition is more suited for fans of eccentricity, those who willingly analyze plaster molds in search of the meaning of life. Even so, any visitor to the exhibit will make her way back to Central Campus thinking not about the giant snow banks that turn New Haven’s streets into mazes, but about the artwork itself.