New Art Disturbs an Old Space

Some color on the ol' cubicle.
Some color on the ol' cubicle. // Allie Krause

At New Haven’s Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery, art fans are being shocked out of their complacency — or at least that’s what Hayward Gatling, the curator of “Disturbing the Comfortable,” would say. His show, which includes works of various media done by artists ranging from 17 to 65 years of age, draws inspiration from the words of graffiti artist Banksy, who said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

From its content to its location, “Disturbing the Comfortable” breaks convention. The exhibit’s paintings, photos and sculptures are displayed in a space that is part-gallery, part-office. The contemporary works line both sides of a hallway sandwiched between office cubicles, extending into a large and otherwise bare conference room. All around, office workers continue to perform their daily tasks. At first, this juxtaposition is jarring—why should collages and copiers cohabitate? But perhaps this tension is intentional: a traditional office environment is interrupted by provocative modern art, just as innovation must always disturb tradition. In this way, the pseudo-gallery setting follows the exhibit’s theme. With his surprising choice of venue, Gatling already has his viewers where he wants them.

Once viewers have taken in the space, their attention can move on to the works themselves. Jahmane’s “MLBK JR,” for example, is a mixed media piece reminiscent of a political cartoon. A majestic image of Martin Luther King Jr. stands powerfully beside a Burger King logo that reads, “Martin Luther Burger King Jr.” King’s mouth is open, and a spiky red speech bubble — of the breed that should belong to a superhero exclaiming “POW!” — says “Feeding the Struggle One Meal at a Time!”

Works such as Vito Bonanno’s “Borat Stories” and Dooley-O’s “Hanging Men/Strange Fruit” also suggest uncomfortable racial undertones. In the foreground of “Borat Stories,” a simple, cartoon version of Borat frowns. The haphazardly-colored background is punctuated by interjections such as “warning!”, “I love you” and “Borat poop in a bag.” In Dooley-O’s piece, dark figures hang by their necks alongside decrepit signs that read “equal rights” and bear peace symbols. These works, like “MLBK JR,” force the viewer to confront unpleasant realities — they are a reminder that, despite how far the Dream has come, race remains an uncomfortable subject for most.

Other pieces, like Alan Neider’s “Ad and Jewelry-3,” present a not-so-subtle commentary on materialism. A young, bearded man drawn in charcoal lies on the floor, face twisted towards the viewer as he is crushed beneath a woman’s black stiletto boot. Superimposed over the boot-wearer’s legs are massive, bejeweled rings is made of silver, platinum and gold fabric.

Beauty is also aptly explored, and dismissed, in Neider’s “Portrait-5.” Like one of Lichtenstein’s blonde faces, the painting is composed of almost careless-looking splashes of paint on a background of fabric and twisted wire. The comfort the viewer finds in the subject’s pouty-lipped, blue-eyed beauty is disturbed by the unevenness of the background: Beneath the paint, haphazardly placed wires add anatomically incorrect texture to her complexion. With their use of unconventional materials and raw subject matter, Neider’s works fulfill the exhibit’s goal of challenging expectations.

Other works, however, puzzled more than they disturbed. The exhibit is advertised as a radical departure from conventional artwork, but some pieces fell short of that promise. In Kwadro Adae’s “Vertigo,” for example, six large, humanoid creatures stand in various orientations. These figures, done entirely in blue, red and purple, appear to be frozen in unidentifiable dance positions — it’s intriguing, but not provocative. Similarly, Trevor Lyon’s “Olives” was disturbing only in that its supposedly status quo-disrupting message is impossible to decipher. The black-and-white photograph depicts a close-up aerial view of olives splashing into a martini glass — a beautiful piece of work, to be sure, but perhaps not a standout of the “new art movement”, that Gatling trumpets.

Gatling’s show presents an engaging collection of works — some thematically discomforting, some made troubling through their media and some that fail to disturb altogether. These pieces, set in an unusual gallery space, span the spectrum of both success and failure in contemporary art.

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