The small lobby of 70 Audubon Street holds a pair of elevators with mirrored doors. You use them to get to The Arts Council of Greater New Haven on the second floor, where you’ll find the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery. Inside — more an office than a typical, spare art space — people answer phones, printers chug out paper and coffee cups languish on conference room tables. I came here to see “Comedy and Tragedy,” an exhibit curated by local artist Tony Juliano.
The show is disorienting, even beyond the creepy setting. The transitions from one artist’s work to another’s are as jarring as the pieces against the office walls. Bright, acrylic portraits lead to a grotesque cartoon of a sewer rat, and dark photography follows blown-up pictures of crumpled sock puppets. Perhaps I was most confused by how each artist interpreted Juliano’s broad exhibit theme. But, hey, I don’t blame them — it’s a tough task. In fact, once I saw the pieces and felt the disjointed spaces between them, I ran a few ideas through my head. At first, I thought I should suss out what comedy and tragedy really are, deep down. The basics. I realized, then, that when you study the abstract ideas, it becomes difficult to tell them apart.
Works by Audrey Kantrowitz line the entrance of “Comedy and Tragedy.” The paintings, all portraits done in acrylic, have a fantastical quality. In one, “Red Dreads,” a woman’s hair winds from her head into inhuman shapes. In “Theda Bara,” gold eyes glimmer like embers behind a black and white face. Kantrowitz also displays two portraits of the man she calls her “absolute favorite muse,” Joseph Carey Merrick. (You can find videos of her sketching his head on YouTube.) Better known as the Elephant Man, Merrick lived during the late 19th century and had severe physical deformities, leaving his face and body with bulging, lopsided tumors. Kantrowitz doesn’t let his unusual appearance warp her careful portraiture. His eyes stare at the viewer as if he were a regular royal sitting for the family painter.
Juliano’s own work follows the portraits: I found some of it by turning on a TV screen in a conference room. His “Four Short Videos from Dr. Wilde Productions” let him try on different creative personae. I could tell Juliano is probably the guy everyone knows in the neighborhood — he’s prolific, a bit kooky, and the writer, director, editor, producer, and actor in most of the shorts. The first is surreal with a surfer rock soundtrack, ending in a face-off between a woman in a leather bodysuit and a nun. Another adds drama to home videos with funeral footage, and a third follows a stuffed sheep through a washing machine. They’re funny like your uncle’s jokes, but their insidious gloom lingers, too.
The larger paintings display some of the best technical skill in the exhibit. Amie Ziner’s four-paneled piece called “Chemical Love” fuses the natural and the artificial, the organic and the destructive: a container of weed-killing solution sits under the wing of a butterfly, and drops from a beaker morph into the umbilical cord of a purple, alien baby. “Fire Ant” by Edward R. Shaw depicts what its title suggests, the smooth, futuristic insect glowing with an eerie green light.
When I left the exhibit, past girls waiting in the lobby for ballet lessons, a photograph by Jesse Richards stayed in my head. It’s one of the first pieces I walked by, hung on the side of a cubicle and barely larger than a small paperback book. A woman with short blond hair crouches, blurry, on a reflective surface that looks like a mudflat. Her long, spidery legs end in a pair of chunky black heels, and her hand almost touches the ground. She’s black and white and a bit out of focus, like the visualization of a character in a novel.
Why did this piece, dim and understated next to the more flamboyant works, stay with me? I think the photograph addresses the exhibit’s theme on a deeper level, whether Richards knew it or not. The image is weird, the heeled woman out of place. She’s reaching for something, though, and she hasn’t quite grasped it. Those subtle intersections of “comedy” and “tragedy,” if we can even call them that, often pass by without second thought. We can pull them towards their extremes, but still, they’re most effective when they’re a little bit blurry, not quite in focus.