Ascribing the name “dwelling” to a living space makes for a decidedly active conception of home. We can return to a house after a long day and be content to veg out on the couch; it is a place in which we have the right to rest and indolence. A dwelling, on the other hand, implies something decisive. We choose to pause here and reflect, and while the actual act of resting doesn’t change much wherever it takes place, the title of dwelling gives it a different symbolism. That name triggers something more than a feeling of comfort or security — it inspires us to contemplate the invaluable time that we spend in whatever space we consider our own.
Those were my thoughts when I arrived at Artspace yesterday afternoon and encountered the word in thick purple script in the window. This week marks the kickoff of Artspace’s City-Wide Open Studios festival, which in its 18-year existence has devoted itself to bringing together passionate artists from around Connecticut to showcase and discuss their work. This weekend, City-Wide Open Studios 2015 will extend beyond Artspace and into Greater New Haven. Tonight, a house party initiates a weekend-long exhibition of pieces that focus on the 21st century lifestyle. In two weekends, Erector Square will open its many private studios for public viewing. However, the festival formally began last weekend, when the gallery unveiled their current exhibition: a comprehensive overview of this year’s participating artists. For the festival, Artspace asked the 383 participating artists to consider the multifaceted idea of dwelling. So what I saw — and what will be on view at Artspace for the remainder of the festival, which runs into the middle of November — was a collective meditation on the broad topics of place and home.
The work in this exhibition is organized based on the location of later exhibitions, not by style. Due to this structure and the understandable heterogeneity of the material, the aesthetic experience, although intriguing, is a bit overwhelming. Paintings with strong Impressionist influence hang mere inches away from collages that mix newspaper, cardboard, flowers and even, in Jessica Hart’s “Prescription” (number 91), pills. Painful, expressive photography, like Nicholas Abriola’s “Coalescence II” (number 1) and Anastasia Fasnakis’s “Lady of the Lake” (number 42), shares square feet with a piece that resembles a post-apocalyptic diorama. The incongruities that the exhibition puts forth are either arbitrary or incredibly thought provoking — perhaps both at the same time. On one hand, it was difficult for me to focus on one piece for an extended period of time, which I think contributed to my sense of uneasiness in the exhibit. Conversely, the stark changes in tone — like the decision to put Laura Marsh’s Koonsian homage, “Pool toy with big lips and mouth” (number 208), below a painting of two kittens emblazoned with the words “cat noir” — also seem to intimate feelings of displacement, from one’s surroundings or one’s expectations. If one of the goals for this year’s festival is, in director Helen Kauder’s words, to stimulate discussion of the “many meanings of dwelling,” then this first stage has succeeded in doing just that.
But my sensory overload aside, I was truly enthralled by three works in particular. The first, a graphite drawing by Gretchen Hugan entitled “Haiti,” depicts a young boy with a captivating gaze. He looks right at the observer with large, dark eyes and a closed mouth that betrays a tension between fear and confidence. In light of this year’s theme, one cannot help but wonder what home he returns to. Next is Carla Lockwood’s “Bedroom,” which occupies the largest area in the entire exhibit. It’s located behind a set of curtains in the back of the gallery, and consists of a series of black, inverted cone-type structures spread out in a circle. The room is dark except for some electric candles that dangle from the ceiling, which allow the viewer to focus on the sounds that the strange structures emit. The space is filled with what sounded like excerpts from ’80s tunes, suggesting the comfort of late nights alone (or with loved ones), listening to music in the home’s embrace. Finally, Jean Scott’s “Eviction Notice” is arguably the most provocative piece of the exhibit. A simple piece of 8 ½ by 11-inch paper, it details the artist’s struggles to have their art included in CWOS itself, namely that negligent bureaucracy did not come through with promised funding. The notice’s final lines, seemingly addressed to the viewing public, ask an incisive question: “How many mistakes away are you from homelessness?”