Separate but equal

Just a quick walk through the white-lettered red walls of the exhibition, and I already knew that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” would live up to its name. The art screams independence, pride and courage so passionately, so boldly, that these, too, could be unalienable rights.

The current installation, “We the People,” is the first of a three-part exhibition of the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of American art. The full show has been traveling around the country since September 2008, making stops in Louisville, Seattle and Birmingham before coming back to New Haven.

Yale University Art Gallery

In a clockwise path, the gallery walks the viewer through the American experience from its beginning in the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century. Paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, pottery and even furniture retell America’s story through the eyes of various artists.

That day, the gallery seemed to buzz with visitors of all ages, races and styles, a microcosmic melting pot fit for a display of American art. I spotted someone — perhaps Vietnamese — crouching over a piece, mumbling awkwardly to herself as she fumbled with her glasses.

“This is so American,” I heard her say.

She was huddled over a piece of furniture (“High Chest of Drawers”) whose description, strangely enough, noted that it was of German influence. Confused, I watched her walk past other works depicting seemingly non-American scenes, like British soldiers and African men, while whispering that same phrase.

But this, the gallery’s almost random inclusions, is its strength — because that’s precisely what America is too.

Like the larger exhibition, this installation is divided into thirds: “Expressions of Heritage,” “Citizenship and Democracy” and “Class, Race, and Conflict.” It is not just chronologically sound, but also a story of history playing out before the viewers’ eyes: the viewer first encounters European influences and later, Native American influences.

This is most readily apparent in the display of Amos Doolittle’s “A Display of the United States,” an engraving dedicated to the new country that contains symbols drawn from multiple cultures. The curator has placed the piece in such a way that the cross-cultural contact is apparent — just walk through and see for yourself.

Of course, all viewers were spellbound by the technical virtuosity of the artwork. John Trumbull’s works of the Revolutionary War demonstrate an impeccable attention to detail and a mastery of color. None of the paintings on display are larger than a few feet wide, yet each canvas is able to meticulously depict many expressive and unique faces with just a few square inches for each face. In his piece entitled “The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton,” multiple scenes are rendered: the general’s horse’s lifeless pose on the ground, the general’s helpless awaiting of a fatal blow, and soldiers in the background desperately firing cannons. Though just single frames in time, each scene is incredibly dynamic and life-like.

This installation is not just simply a collection of pretty pieces of art. It not only depicts a complex history of America, but it truly captures the American spirit. The information can be overwhelming at times, but the experience of reliving American history through its artwork provides a striking and worthwhile alternative to academic reading.

The other two installations, “Defining the Nation” and “America Rising,” will be on display until July of 2012.

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