“Art abounds in the Elm City,” according to the official Web site for New Haven — and indeed a strange, motley group of satellite exhibition spaces can be found beyond Yale’s two art museums and the city’s formidable public art collection. Work in New Haven ranges from the intriguing (that photograph of Erykah Badu at Koffee Too?) to the passable (the predictable Christian iconography at the Knights of Columbus Museum) to, most frequently, the appalling (the figurative painters at the John Slade Ely House on Trumbull Street).
It was with this expectation for disappointment that I trekked around New Haven in search of the worst art in town. I decided to explore not the alternative spaces such as Artspace in Ninth Square, but rather the so-called “wall art” found in the city’s businesses and corporate headquarters. Not for me the starving art-school graduate; no, I wanted pure, unadulterated capitalism with my prints and canvases.
I started at Claire’s Corner Copia, which is displaying the laughable paintings of David Marshall. The conceit: in ugly, unmixed acrylics, he depicts men in suits and ties with coffee cups instead of heads. Marshall has painted these works in a flat, stoic style that befits the artist’s unsophisticated view: we’re not really people, we’re just hopeless white-collar workers who’ve been caffeinated to death — get it? At least Marshall has a degree of technical skill: Imagine that one painting of a coffee-man falling down an escalator as just a normal person, and all of a sudden the work is rather good — and rather hilarious. But if the lifelessness of the compositions is intentional, their stupidity is surely not. I couldn’t help wondering if Claire herself had chosen these works to get me to switch to decaf.
From Claire’s I went to my beloved Koffee? on Audubon Street, an establishment currently displaying paintings and prints by Amiko R. Horvath. (Or at least this is how I have deciphered her scrawled signaturea — none of the employees could tell me who the artist was). The small black-and-white or sepia prints, which call to mind a mix of Antoni Tapies and Robyn Denny, would be perfectly acceptable in a hotel suite or a bourgeois bathroom. Not so the hideous paintings, made in yellow, black and a vomit-like reddish brown. Imagine abstract expressionism without Pollock’s sense of composition, Rothko’s sexy placidity, and De Kooning’s intriguing representational resonances, and you will be approaching the bathos of these works.
But, in New Haven, as in any city, the worst wall art is always to be found in office building lobbies and waiting rooms. Zeke and Eric Ziner have built a pair of comically earnest sculptures in the lobby of the building on the corner of Whitney and Grove Streets, across from Willoughby’s. Called “Circle of Life Red, Blue,” the two sad constructions, made of the same cheap galvanized steel found in a Pottery Barn garden pail, stand across from each other in an antiseptic vestibule. The works have a stupid anthropomorphism: each is about 6 feet tall and suggests a face and a body by its two suspended circles and curved bases. Completely idiotic steel squares with punched circles, resembling nothing so much as a muffin pan for dwarves, move the sculptures from awful to hilarious.
And unmissable for aesthetes with a masochistic streak are the prints of Barbara A. Harder, currently on view in a hallway in the New Haven Savings Bank that has rather desperately been christened “Gallery 195.” Harder’s hand-made abstract prints, some more than 10 feet long, prove that she might have had a successful career as a wallpaper designer. The layered inks, made in that spectrum of colors so admired by earth-mother weekend potters (grey-brown, burgundy, pastel pink and purple), would have found a nice home on the wall of Illeana Douglas’ jejune art professor from “Ghost World.” But it turns out that these prints are not wrapping paper from The Nature Company: they’re art. One in particular, “Celtic Journey IX,” should have Hibernian travelers from Oisin to Joseph Beuys rolling in their graves.
The thing is, after countless disastrous artworks, you’re bound to find a hit. I spotted mine outside of the Creative Arts Workshop in the form of a painting by Corinne McManemin. The canvas is covered with red and green mandalas which suggest Chris Ofili after a conversion to Richard Gere-style Buddhism. It’s a small but gorgeous work, exhibiting both a sublime compositional balance and a sensitivity to various historical precedents, and it’s one of the best works I’ve seen this year. Even after such a long run of mediocrity, one great painting can still make my day.