Strange that one’s idea of history is so often colored by perception. For some, history is the province of textbooks. For others, history is 6,000 tons of steel imploding on itself. And for others still, history is a gigantic, half-naked George Washington engaging in coitus with a barn.
Perhaps the third is just the personal vision of Justin Richel, an artist whose works are currently on display in the exhibition “Don’t Know Much About History,” which will close just as the New Haven Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum comes crashing down in a controlled demolition during the wee hours of the morning this Saturday. The exhibit is housed at the Artspace gallery, which will also be a temporary home Friday night, as Artspace will open its doors and host an all-night jamboree for those displaced from their apartments by the demolition proceedings.
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Although the implosion of the Coliseum is expected to last only 18 seconds, Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s spokesman Derek Slap said that the nearly 200 residents of the Ninth Square district will need to be relocated for a few hours Saturday morning, simply as a safety precaution. After discussions with city officials, Artspace agreed to serve as one of two designated gathering places where New Haveners could wait out the demolition, Artspace’s Executive Director Helen Kauder said.
For Kauder and Gallery Director Denise Markonish, the new arrangement presented an unexpected opportunity. “Don’t Know Much About History,” which has been running since November, showcases the efforts of 16 different artists to re-examine, challenge and subvert various popular conceptions of the past. In light of the Coliseum’s coming demise, Kauder said the closing of the exhibit seemed somewhat serendipitous.
“We had no idea that it was going to work out like this,” Kauder said. “But we really started to see the situation as a chance to tie the Coliseum into some of the broader themes explored by the exhibit.”
Those themes are rendered in terms equally passionate and whimsical, equally jarring and playful. Richel’s paintings, which employ a nearly Puritanical, crisp visual style to depict an unapologetically (and raunchily) denuded George Washington, bear titles like “Father of a Nation” and “Love of Country” — titles that turn into burlesque gags when the viewer reads on a nearby placard that Washington was actually sterile. On another wall, a series of photographs by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher shows the inhabitants of a small German town dressed up in full Native American garb for one of their annual “Cowboy and Indian” festivals.
“This exhibit shows a whole bunch of artists who were all kind of playing with the idea of history and our popular conceptions of it,” Markonish said. “With a lot of these works, you aren’t exactly sure what you’re looking at until a few minutes have gone by and you’ve readjusted to everything.”
Using the placards as a road map to decode the content of the many historical musings, Ninth Square residents will have plenty of time to explore the charms and challenges of the exhibit Friday night. But Kauder is planning other activities that will jive with the scrambled-history motif.
“We’ll be showing movies all night long,” she said. “Monty Python will be shown, but also some more serious fare. And we might have an open mic for people who have stories and experiences relating to the Coliseum, since there’s a real sense of history imbued in it.”
After the night of contemplating bygone days, Artspace’s backward-looking exhibition will recede into memory, making way for the next exhibition, entitled “Why Look at Animals?” At the same time, the Coliseum will yield to new developments. Whatever people’s feelings of nostalgia, Slap said he thinks the ancient structure is ready to go.
“It’s been an eyesore, especially as an entrance to the city,” Slap said. “It represents the past, and we’re ready for the future.”