The line of patrons appears to flow through the glass walls of the Artspace gallery, disproving principles of physics in their frenzy to appreciate art.
But the art isn’t appreciated. Nobody’s looking at it.
It’s impossible to stop at any one painting. The current of the artsy hardly tolerates a superficial glance before it demands to get past, to appreciate as much art as possible, and, once that’s done with, as many wines, grapes, and bagel chips as possible. The majority of the crowd has its back to the wall, talking with the artists (identified, in a strikingly fascist fashion, by tiny green buttons), presumably about the food, between mouthfuls of hummus.
As I overheard one woman put it: “I think people wait for this every year for the free food.”
The City-Wide Open Studios art show is, according to its manifesto, a “celebration of contemporary art in all its myriad forms.” The show at Artspace was the opening exhibition, where each of the 500 participating artists displayed one piece. Every weekend from now until the 29th will feature another exhibition in the New Haven area.
Opinion about the show is generally — and excessively — positive. Chris Woerner, an art critic from Stony Creek, admires the grassroots character of the event, how it allows anyone with an iota of talent to go public.
The art itself encompasses myriad forms, not all of them good. A photograph of an old car seems more the product of boredom than inspiration. What might be a tiny Ark of the Covenant, complete with figures prophesying the apocalypse, is too absurd to be taken seriously. Nearby, a clay plate with mythological images lies adjacent to an accidentally satirical collage bearing the emblem: “You are the CEO of your own life.”
It is perhaps unfair to view these bastardizations of artistic forms in such a negative light, since they, like the tarnished frames of rediscovered paintings, lend a beauty by contrast to the gallery’s real art. Juxtaposed with disproportional figures of nymphs adorning a clay ode to imitations of Greek art, “Untitled” (Allyson Smith), is as arresting as a pair of brilliant eyes in a crowd of strangers. It is a portrait of a woman in lavender and blue. Her face is smeared, unclear and dissolved into the background, suggesting a dissolution of identity affirmed by her expression, one of both death and orgasm.
Small and lost in the center of its large white wall, Jane Cukor’s “Aome” is similarly striking. Shades of magenta, green and blue are imposed on a charcoal background, suggesting an eye and an embryo. A fountain of green shoots from the top of a rough sphere, and the background’s contours seem randomly placed, resembling television static.
“Painted Mother” (Jennifer Reynolds) is a nude photograph of a tattooed woman against an elaborately embroidered couch. The design on her shoulders blends with that on the fabric, creating an impression of unity of person and object. While other photographers were satisfied with capturing simply interesting images, Reynolds’ piece is more like a painting in its poignancy and surreality.
My ears ringing from loud conversation and the thumping bass of generic pop music that served as the cheap background to a disappointing show, I left Artspace exhausted, disillusioned and unwilling to endure another exhibition.
Sunday’s open gallery, however, left me less harried and more inspired.
Erector Square, the site of a factory that once made Erector Sets, is the least likely place imaginable for an exhibition. The building is apt in one sense: its own aesthetic quality is so absent that it serves as a contrast for even the most mediocre works.
Anticipating the pathologically short attention spans of its viewers, the organizers of the event have set up more pieces of art than could be seen in a lifetime. Unable to make any rational decision about where to start, I picked the first entrance I saw, climbed a few flights of stairs and turned down a random hallway.
The first room I enter contains, ominously, a table with grapes and a few bottles of soda. Along the walls are two-dimensional pieces meant to portray three-dimensional geometric forms. The method is effective; the use of diverging lines and color gradients create something resembling a Jacob’s Ladder. As the artist, Lisa Keskinen, explains, the images are initially drawn on a computer, then inputted into a machine which cuts them from wood. Paint is later applied to complete the piece. Though interesting, Keskinen’s work is almost completely limited to these simple and uninspiring shapes.
Another room featured Joy Wulke, a trained architect and graduate of Yale, who creates fascinating, fractured images with glass. In one sculpture, a model of a tree is suspended in a geometric glass box; in another, shards of glass create a series of broken windows on the surface of an intact window. The window pieces, Wulke told me, were inspired by a series of photographs she took of a schoolhouse as it decayed over 25 years. The studio, full of glass and vague reflections, was haunting and intuitively artistic.
Open Studios seems to be a product of both a desire to expose New Havenites to art and a need to satisfy the bellies and egos of its patrons. Its organizers have been too liberal in choosing their artists, taking anyone with a paint brush. As a result, Open Studios presents a diluted and discouraging picture of the New Haven art scene. Yet the few sparks in this uninspired darkness are enough to legitimize the exhibition. In their light, it becomes something more significant than just an ego-trip for the unsophisticated.