Lining just one hallway of the Environmental Science Center on 21 Sachem Street, Ava Orphanoudakis’s “Many Voices, One Song,” is a quiet ode to the earth. As not only an artist but an environmental activist, Orphanoudakis focuses on the connection between man and nature in her paintings. In particular, she asks in the exhibit’s introduction for passersby to consider two main questions while viewing her works: Can we listen to the music of the earth? Can we hear our many voices as one song?
Orphanoudakis opens her exhibit by inviting viewers to contemplate themselves — and discard the “I” entirely. In a piece aptly named “Death of the Ego,” Orphanoudakis sets the stage for an experience that is more about just feeling rather than thinking — the music of the earth, after all, not the theory. It is the only work featuring human figures, but it is far from out-of-place. “Death of the ego” isn’t necessarily “pretty” to look at —flustered, frenzied, it’s a surreal dream in grayscale—but that’s exactly the point.It disturbs, it discomforts, it discredits what is traditionally beautiful — because nature as rendered by Orphanoudakis is not the serene landscapes, the woods, the fields we’ve grown accustomed to. Instead, through “Death of the ego,” she creates a striking world where there are no definable things, only the colors and textures of the land and the sea and the sky.
Orphanoudakis’s weakest works in the exhibit are often too literal for their own good. In the trio “Up From The Earth We Rise #1, #2, #3” and “Melting Ice, Rising Black Water,” Orphanoudakis struggles to match the title of the piece to the actual content of the piece. For example, “Up From The Earth We Rise #1, #2, #3” feature columns rising up from layers of soil while “Melting Ice, Rising Black Water” looks like an actual ice floe torn to pieces by the sea. The result is jarring.
Orphanoudakis really shines when she just lets her paintings settle on the paper, when she just lets the art speak for itself. “From The Earth: Blue-Green Ode,” is perhaps the most intriguing painting in the exhibit. It’s an interpretation of the ocean that, for the most part, looks nothing like the ocean — sheets of solid color disturbed by squares of rough- and-tumble whorls and warps — but it’s that little similarity, that tiny connection hinted at by the title that lends it its power. The title and quotes give the context, and the painting gives the meaning: the peaceful lull of the waves, the crash and break of the storms.
Orphanoudakis succeeds whenever she gives her art and the viewer room to breathe. Her “Standing Tall” series (highlights include “Lit By Moonlight, Standing Tall,” “Falling Night Rain, Standing Tall,” “Chased by the Wind, Standing Tall”) are the strongest in her exhibit. They are nothing more than lines and shades, but they invite the viewer to get lost in their curves and angles, to put away titles and quotations for a moment and just feel nature, the stillness of the moon, the melancholy of the rain dripping on metal, the whip of the wind blowing away at clothes. They’re evocative, they’re entrancing, they’re alluring, and it’s here that Orphanoudakis really does display the titular “music” and “voices,” that persuading song of nature, mysterious and inexplicable, calling out for company.
“Many Voices, One Song” ends with the eponymous collection of paintings “Many Voices, One Song #1-28,” a series of 28 miniature panels, each with a different image. Some are more concrete, a yellow-tipped mountain watching over an unbroken sea, while others are more abstract, intersections of ridges and grooves and melting colors. It’s a collection of scenes, snapshots of nature, universal in their location and time, the sunset, the sunrise, the calm, the wreck, the order, the mess, everything that Orphanoudakis has expressed in her previous paintings condensed into a mosaic of tiny squares that captures the unity in diversity, the connection of disparate things, that threads through her entire exhibit. “Many Voices, One Song #1-28” is not only visually striking, spanning an entire wall, it’s also the most satisfying piece. While the other works were simply short meditations on nature, some of them off-the-mark, “Many Voices, One Song #1-28” is the culmination of Orphanoudakis’s efforts, at once both neatly simple and fascinatingly intricate, a fitting end to an impressive showcase.
Prior to walking into Euphoria Salon, I am a little nervous. Think about it: you are trying to study a bunch of traditional Chinese nature paintings, but they’re sandwiched between mirrors that face salon chairs. What if there are women in the chairs, getting highlights and blowouts, while you try to navigate around busy stylists and blasts of hair spray?
Fortunately, at 10 am on a Tuesday, I can see the works of Xiaoxing Cao, a local Chinese artist who heads the Yale Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Group, without being in the way: the receptionist is the only other person in the salon. “This definitely brought spring early into Euphoria,” she tells me.
The exhibit contains blooms of all sorts — peonies, lotus flowers, wisteria. Cao renders these flowers with vigorous brushstrokes, and I can almost see her pulling paint across paper. The colors are vibrant: sunset pinks and reds meld with cooler blues and purples. A peony hanging behind the receptionist’s desk is distinct against swaths of bruised blacks and blues, all of it flecked with gold dots. It reminds me of Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold,” fitting given that Whistler himself drew inspiration from East Asia.
Cao tends to have an aversion to white space. She decorates backgrounds with amorphous splashes of heavily applied color. A smoky butterfly fits awkwardly into the negative space next to a few blooms. The birds wear worn-out expressions, as if resigned to their fates within vertical frames. The specks of gold scattered across the paintings seem like grains of pollen rubbed into my palm. Green spores, blood orange blobs populate many of the works, as if growing in a petri dish.
Despite each painting’s busy composition, the mirrors still distract me. Every time I try to look at a detail, I catch sight of my messy hair, the acne constellation on my right cheek. If I am so easily caught up in my own appearance right now, would I really contemplate Cao’s exhibit instead of my reflection during a haircut? Would the flowers, framing my face, assuage my worry that the hairdresser will cut off my ear? I consider sitting in one of the chairs, but I’m concerned that the receptionist will ask what I’m doing.
For the price of $400, I can take home a painted peony of my own. Or, for a little more, I can acquire one of the two landscapes on view! (They’re relegated to the back of the salon.) One features two men and some very large birds gently drifting down a body of water, to the tune — I mean caption — of “Fresh breeze and green water, here with me, getting tipsy” ($780). At Euphoria, fifty bucks gets me a haircut. One of these babies is, like, 15 and a half haircuts— what’s the price of beauty, anyway? I’m used to museums and discrete object labels, so I can’t help but zero in on the price tags.
Though I might not be within the confines of a white-walled gallery, at least the exhibit is up-front: Cao needs to make a living too. It’s nice to hear a little jazz while perusing the works, seeing eye to eye with a rooster or examining a leaf.
And neither mirrors nor price tags distract from the overall calm of flowers at slight angles, leaning to the side in unseen wind. I’d hang one in my dorm room. Or my house. I confess, I might be a little bit biased. I recognize the “Xiao” in the artist’s signature as the same “Xiao” in my Chinese name, and I feel a weird kinship to her. My grandfather taught me how to paint shrimp with fat, thick brushes and sharp flicks of the wrist the summer I was in Xi’an. I now lead a tour at the Art Gallery that’s all about flowers.
All in all, Euphoria is still worth a visit on some spring morning, even though you might not experience the same weird combination of nostalgia and fascination that I do. These flowers are less ephemeral than the actual blooms, but only by a little: the paintings do go down on June 26.
I was fifteen when I first thought about the way people look at art. In mid-September of 2011, my dad took me to a retrospective of the German photographer Thomas Struth in a small gallery in East London. We walked through hushed, white rooms where large, glossy prints seemed draw us into their scenes. Struth had photographed intimidating, intricate machinery and seductive, green jungles, and we found ourselves tangled in outstretched mechanical limbs and elegant fronds. But we were most caught up in the photographs that seemed to pose as mirrors in the gallery. We were captivated, watching snippets of lives that seemed to resemble our own. Struth’s photographs from the early 2000s, a series titled “Audiences,” were life-size photographs of gallery-goers caught in the act of looking.
* * *
I’m now sitting in the Yale University Art Gallery. I’m in the room with the Romans and the Greeks, surrounded by ancient stones and the dull eyes of past powers. Light falls through the tall windows and stripes the floor with shadows. This is the first room when you enter the gallery, and for that reason it seems that people don’t really stick here. They merely glance around, unsure of what to look at, before moving on to the big stuff: the Titians, the Manets, Van Gogh’s “Night Café” — everything that people know and can marvel at with ease.
The room is pretty empty right now. Everyone seems to have his or her attention directed elsewhere, but maybe that’s because it’s a Friday evening and there are 15 minutes until closing time. There are one or two who wander in and pay a bit more attention to the surrounding relics, like the man who clasped his hands together, smiled and bowed his hairless head to me as I held the door open for a group of accented tourists — “Thank you very much darling.” He idles between busts and portraits with those hands now clasped behind his back, his posture straight and chin lifted while his eyes study Marcus Aurelius through his glasses. His slow, soft steps are deliberate along with his poise, giving him an air of assurance. Then, there are those who come through the Ancient Art room just searching for an exit. Those are the more elderly visitors: white tufts of hair and spotted faces that smile at me. Their cheeks crease, eyes crinkling as they meet mine.
Upstairs in the corridors of European Art, I look for the names that I know, the brushstrokes I can try to decode and identify with. Sometimes, if the surface of a painting particularly intrigues me, I walk up to it and, standing quite close to the canvas, search for evidence of the artist’s human touch. Sometimes a work of art becomes so well known and revered that it almost seems to have come into this world fully formed, as if no man or woman’s hand could possibly create such an icon.
I can’t remember the first time I picked up a pencil, crayon or magic marker. My fingers have always known the grip of a pen, and my back has always been familiar with the sensation of hunching, shoulders forward, as if poised to dive into the picture-plane of my creation. I’m comfortable making art, but looking is an entirely different matter. My knowledge of art history consists only of the few facts I remember from a high school class on the subject, none of which are relevant in small, hushed galleries like that one in East London. There, all that is needed is a single glance from one of the gallery’s employees, someone who knows that he knows more than I do, and I am left exposed.
If galleries and museums leave artists and art-enthusiasts alike feeling lost and uneducated, why do we keep going back? Why did my dad and I, on a dreary Saturday in mid-September, take the Tube from central London and ride the rattling tracks all the way to a small, out-of-the-way exhibition in East London?
* * *
Crossing the hall, I leave behind the late 19th century for the likes of Hals, Rubens and Uccello. This side of the gallery is empty; I drift farther back in history and away from familiar faces, names, color palettes and anatomically correct figures. A member of the staff dressed in black and blue interrupts my reverie to inform me that “The gallery is closing soon.” I nod and head for the elevator with the guard following slightly behind, padding across the wooden floors with his black, patent leather loafers.
Looking around the elevator, I see many of the same people from Struth’s photographs. There are men and women clutching brochures at their sides, their eyes scanning the interior of the elevator with varying levels of engagement, their clothes not too far from the average styles of 2004 and 2005: blocks of color, garish floral prints and baggy trousers. There are children holding their parents’s hands, and adolescents casting their eyes to the ground. Nobody moves to interact with the other gallery-goers. They are all wrapped in their own observations.
I step out of the elevator and into another gallery. Soft chatter hums in one corner while the sharp report of boot heels against a hardwood floor punctures the still atmosphere. As I glance around me, I see people focusing on what they see before themselves. They are searching, with eyes that dart to and fro and meander through landscapes of paint; they are searching with bodies that crouch over and lean in and step back to take in the whole scene. And then, at some point or another, a change occurs. The searching eyes widen, a smile shimmers across the cheeks and the back straightens. It has been found, that familiar thing they were searching for, that which they can’t tuck away in a tote bag but which they will hold on to. With such a souvenir acquired, they will leave feeling like the afternoon at the gallery was worth their time. I’m also looking for something to take home, something I can use myself. I’m looking for those hints of human, a mistake, a structural line, an exposed layer of old paint, an exposed layer of old ideas, ancient people, a different time.
Like Romanticism itself, the YUAG’s new and exhaustive special exhibition “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860” is difficult to encapsulate. Drawing from a variety of collections — the Gallery itself, the Yale Center for British Art and Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library — the exhibition spans two floors and four galleries and creates a sweeping landscape of the Romantic movement. Sectioned into eight different themes and featuring works by such luminaries as Joseph Mallord William Turner and Francisco de Goya, the exhibition attempts to provide a clearer understanding of the movement’s multi-faceted nature. And while it would be impossible for any one exhibition, no matter how large, to capture the essence of the Romantic period, “The Critique of Reason,” a stunning exhibit, comes impressively close.
Each room in the gallery is painted a different shade of either red or blue, creating a slight tension that keeps viewers on their toes. The delicate contrast between colors alludes to the opposition between the Enlightenment and Romanticism: Light blues and heather greys suggest the clarity of reason and the cool certainty of the Enlightenment, juxtaposed with deep crimsons and vibrant reds that call forth the emotionally charged tempest of Romantic thought.
As the exhibition’s title suggests, Romanticism turned Enlightenment’s own investigative lens onto itself, questioning knowledge and whether reason might detract from the appreciation of beauty. The paintings on view suggest a quest for answers about one’s self and one’s place in the world, answers that cannot necessarily be found with a microscope. The gallery’s layout offers no set chronology or prescribed order in which to view the themes and allows the viewer free reign, encouraging a Romantic-like exploration of the self and the surroundings.
Much of the exhibit is dominated by landscapes: caverns, starry swatches of sky, seascapes punctured by boats, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, ominous clouds. Each painting invites the viewer to inhabit the artist’s mind and search for whatever meaning he (the vast majority of artist on view are men) found in the bareness of valleys or the grandeur of fantastical caves. However, viewers can also imagine themselves into the landscape, to see how their thoughts align with any particular painter’s vision. I found myself enthralled in the pulsating stars and the faint horizon of Jean-Francois Millet’s “Starry Night.” The calm of the hazy trees and the deep cerulean sky drew me into Millet’s psyche, allowing me a moment’s break from my hectic life.
“The Critique of Reason” also highlights the intense Romantic fascination with the raw power of nature. Man is pitted against the uncontrollable, the mighty force of natural disasters. One painting in particular conveys this: John Martin’s “The Deluge.” A massive canvas wider than my 5’2” frame, it commands the attention of the room and drew me in immediately not just with its size but with its subject as well: a small island of impotent people at the center of a dark seascape, surrounded by towering waves. I recognized the helplessness of the people, their complete lack of control over their fate, and was captivated by a scene of utter terror for those within it.
The paintings within this exhibition allow us to confront our fears from a safe distance. However the Romantics could also appreciate nature’s gentle beauty. For example, John Constable’s “Cloud Studies” depict a nature as nonthreatening, ever-changing and welcoming.
Although all the works within the gallery are over a hundred and fifty years old, many of the paintings still feel relevant. Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War, an eighty-piece exploration of the realistic and fantastical horrors of war, brings to mind images we see every day on the news; each etching draws the viewer further into a real-life nightmare. Viewing the etchings, one begins to wonder why such terrors persist and why we haven’t learned from the past; Goya’s works suggest that, two hundred years ago, he asked the same questions.
With poise and exuberance, “The Critique of Reason” grapples with pertinent emotions and issues. Wandering the exhibition can be likened to walking through one’s own mind, seeing reflections, both welcome and unwelcome, of the world around us and within us. Whether you’re looking for introspection, knowledge, or the simple pleasure of viewing the work of talented artists, “The Critique of Reason” is the perfect escape.
Just like the title, “2,015 But Who’s Counting?” the Yale MFA Thesis Exhibition was playful and biting. On my way to the Yale School of Art, I was lucky enough to catch up with this kid I know, Will. Will was just, like, walking around and I convinced him to come check out art for a little bit. As we entered 1156 Chapel Street, we realized we actually had a lot of interesting things to say about the projects inside.
“Cool,” was one of the first things I said. The first room of the exhibition featured a few paintings that were actually much more than just “cool.” Vibrant colors and abstract shapes splashed across the wall. One painting depicted a tan figure with a hand covering its mouth in one corner, overshadowed by one large, abstract section in tan. This use of abstract shape to evoke a feeling of loneliness, emphasized by blue surrounding the small figure, was intriguing and beautiful.
“Is that an arm?” Will said.
Entering the next room of the exhibition, we were amazed to find that the artists had incorporated sculpture into their pieces, allowing the art to break into the physical space of the venue and share it with us. One such piece contained a print on the wall depicting a demolished room. The demolition poured from the wall into the room in the form of broken glass and crumpled sketches.
“That’s the stuff from the picture,” I said.
Then we walked around more.
“I like this one,” Will said.
Will was referring to the work of Camille Hoffman which hung at the end of the room. We landed here at the end of the exhibition and just stared. It was beautiful, playful and plastic. Hoffman creates her pieces using printed plastic. The one we found ourselves in front of was a scenic mountain vista made from cut-outs of golf courses. Aside from just being beautiful, the piece had a joking punchiness that made it unlike art I had previously seen. The use of the golf courses gave it a surrealist tone and created a space in which disparate elements were forced to interact with one another.
“My favorite part is the stickers,” I said.
It’s true. I still think that even though it’s been a couple hours since I saw it. The top of the work had a few little, glittery stickers on it. It gave the art an attitude that echoed the title of the exhibition. But it was not without depth. Hanging next to the painting was a large, plastic, holiday-themed tablecloth that stretched about 30 feet. The cloth was made of colorful woven strips. This is a piece Hoffman has exhibited all over the world titled “In the future, they kept alive what ancestral rites they could remember.” The interwoven vibrant strips evoked a sense of family, togetherness, and joined cultures that I found quite beautiful.
“Haha,” Will said.
That was after I had made a joke. After perusing this exhibition with Will on a picturesque winter afternoon, I felt like I had seen something special. It was art that incorporated the sarcastic humor of our generation without losing out on beauty. By mixing print with paint, one dimensional with three dimensional, and sophistication with attitude, the Yale MFA Thesis Exhibition surprised and delighted me. The exhibition runs through February 25 and is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Sunday. I definitely recommend finding someone on the street (I admit it works best with someone named Will) to share insights with as you peruse the work of some clever and inventive Yalies.
Perched at the corner of Elm and Howe streets, Brick Oven lacks the national renown of Elm City stalwarts like Pepe’s or Sally’s or Modern. No matter: owner Kadir Catalbasoglu maintains he runs the best pizza place in town. Grease-skeined thin crust runs $2.50 a slice (large pies: $12.95). The fridges are full of beer and Coke and locally made Foxon Park soda. The interior of the restaurant, with its assortment of landscape paintings and heavy use of decorative logs, resembles the basement of a ski lodge in 1970s Wisconsin. For this no-frills vibe, Brick Oven has emerged as a popular late-night food destination for Yalies, who increasingly have come to cite a reason for their preference other than pizza or service: Catalbasoglu’s Instagram account.
Catalbasoglu, typically known to customers as just Kadir, opened Brick Oven in “late 1999, 2000,” he said in an on-site interview. The Instagram came much later: he only started posting (from @brickovenpizzanewhaven, a mouthful of a handle) last year. The account’s popularity among students has skyrocketed in recent months. As of publication, Catalbasoglu has 213 followers, and a typical post garners anywhere from two to 12 likes. “Everyone comes in and wants to be on it,” Catalbasoglu said.
Most of Catalbasoglu’s shots are simple. His posts frequently feature familiar food photography tropes: smooth mounds of dough; a fridge filed with beverages; aerial shots of oozy pies topped with weavings of onions and ham. Others feature that titular wood-burning oven, often in video form.
What distinguishes Brick Oven’s Instagram from mere menu pictography is its portraiture component. From behind the counter, Catalbasoglu takes pictures of his customers at the register; often, they pose with pizzas or containers of other takeout food. The result of all of these photos in juxtaposition recalls arty portrait blogs like Scott Shuman’s Sartorialist or Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York. But because the account ultimately exists as a form of marketing (rather than a creative project), its aesthetic is decidedly unaesthetic — which is why, of course, it’s become such a delight.
On Halloween, Catalbasoglu took pictures of smiling angels and zombies as they waited for their pies. Last December, he photographed a menorah in the restaurant window. He sometimes captions the photographs but often does not (some recent examples on a scale of most descriptive to most affectionate: “father and son,” “loyal customer from india [sic],” “old friend,” “favorite customer” and — not to be outdone — “my true favorite customer”). Sometimes, he shares pictures of his kids.
Jacob Riis became famous for his photographs of tenement-dwellers a century ago. He latched onto the recent invention of magnesium flash powder, which allowed him to illuminate dark boarding house interiors with a sudden burst of light. The subjects of his pictures are frozen in shock. Flash photography is new to them, and with mouths agape they are immortalized in the harsh white glow of magnesium.
Catalbasoglu has taken this unorthodox method and made it benevolent. Nobody expects a portrait project in a restaurant, but the absurdity of the ambush only adds to the fun. Consent is key. Nobody is uploaded against his or her will. As time has passed, the Instagram’s rising notoriety means that fewer are taken by surprise. “I’ve got friends who say, ‘Put me on, put me on,’” Catalbasoglu said. “That’s how we do it.” No magnesium flash powder needed.
All of these factors have given the Brick Oven Instagram account something of a cult following among students, particularly the nearby off-campus crowd, many of whom Catalbasoglu has featured. One friend even mentioned he belonged to an ongoing Facebook group chat with fellow Brick Oven devotees, who message one another to plan occasional jaunts.
Catalbasoglu seemed surprised when I told him I planned to write about his Instagram, and indeed, the success of an Instagram dedicated to Brick Oven is itself unexpected. But in the end, the pairing of pizza and photography makes sense. The perfect pie and perfect shot have much in common, Catalbasoglu said. “You got to look at it,” he said. “Artistic work.”
On the corner of Chapel Street and High Street, the familiar vacancy that was the entrance to the Yale Center for British Art has been boarded up. The gray plywood anticipates the 14-month renovation, which began last week, and, more importantly, indicates the temporary loss of one of Yale’s most unique artistic spaces.
Students and administrators alike will miss the YCBA, which houses works by canonical British artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. “I’m probably just going to cry a little,” said Daniel Leibovic ’17, who works at the YCBA as a student tour guide.
He explained that the YCBA provided an important space to think and study and fostered a strong sense of community among the student workers. Leibovic will miss his fellow tour guides, as well as his favorite exhibition, “Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention,” a collection of Victorian statues.
However, despite this cultural vacancy, there are other spaces in New Haven that serve similar artistic purposes. The museum belongs to a long tradition of public art that has strong ties to Yale and a strong presence in the New Haven community. The YUAG, the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Lipstick statue in Morse — all are historic components of the New Haven arts scene.
In many ways, the YCBA’s renovation is an opportunity: Students who have yet to visit museums on campus and in New Haven may choose to finally visit the YCBA upon its reopening. And, alternatively, those in search of another art space will have an incentive to explore during the coming year.
Since 1974, the YCBA has been one of New Haven’s most popular artistic institutions. Paul Mellon ’29, a British art enthusiast, purchased and installed around 95 percent of the pieces displayed today. The vast and impressive collection attracts an equally vast and impressive audience: graduates students, undergraduate students, professors, young artists and many locals.
While the museum is home to the largest collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom, the building itself is also a work of art — it was given the Twenty-five Year award by the American Institute of Architects in 2005.
The principal goal of the renovation is to preserve this work of art: the historic Louis Kahn building that houses the collection. After 10 years of researching the history, design and construction of the building, the project is finally underway. The renovation will include updated fire safety code compliance as well as restorations that better service the public. The lecture hall, for example, will now adhere to American Disability Act standards, and a new seminar room will be built upstairs.
Mark Aronson, chief conservator for the YCBA, is enthusiastic about improvements to the building’s physical accessibility. As an art restorer, however, he is more interested in the accessibility of the artwork itself — he looks forward to working on some of the better known paintings during the renovation. In many ways, his work with individual pieces parallels the restoration process the museum will undergo for the next 14 months.
“We can almost never get our hands on ‘The Allegory of the Tudors’ Succession’” he said, alluding to a Lucas de Heere canvas. “Every third grader knows what it is, so whenever a school group comes, they park in front of Henry VIII.” With the restoration, Aronson and his team will finally get to look at it.
Before the YCBA closed, he was reluctant to deprive students of such historical pieces, which present unique learning opportunities. He sees education as one of the YCBA’s most important services to the community and said that museum staff are very conscious of how viewers will benefit from their displays.
Cassandra Albinson, chief curator of the YCBA’s collection, also emphasized its role as an educational institution.
“I really like portraiture of women, so when I’m working on something I’m always hoping it will be of interest to, say, feminist groups on campus,” she said. She hopes that the new seminar room will bring undergraduate art courses into the building, particularly those courses that involve the collection.
Despite her interest in engaging campus groups, Albinson said she wants the YCBA to be a space where both Yale students and younger schoolchildren can learn about British art. She drew attention to the museum’s location — just off Old Campus — which puts it literally and figuratively on the border between the Yale and New Haven communities. The majority of patrons are not associated with Yale, and, as one of nine public museums in New Haven, the YCBA plays a central role in the city art scene, for students and non-students alike.
While the manifold services provided by the Center would be difficult to replicate, other Yale institutions exercise equal influence over the city’s artistic community. For instance, the YUAG’s presence and influence most closely approximate those of the YCBA, its neighbor.
The YUAG, unlike the YCBA, has pieces from all over the world and all ages of art history. But despite these differing collections, the two institutions occupy similar spaces in the arts scene: Both are free and both place special emphasis on their accessibility to the larger community. Pamela Franks, curator at the YUAG, speaks of many programs that resemble those of the YCBA: lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions and programs for school kids.
Franks believes that the YUAG helps young students learn to think differently. She, too, emphasizes the interactive nature of art education — she believes that students learn “visual literacy” and the ability to think of history in pictures.
However, most importantly, the Gallery broadens schoolchildren’s sense of belonging to the Yale community. Franks encourages high school students to familiarize themselves the YUAG’s resources and hopes that they come to see it as their museum.
“The fact that we’re free and open to the public is the main part of our identity,” she said. “We’re part of Yale, but we’re here for the University as well as for the public.”
In this way, though private donations constitute the majority of the YCBA’s and the YUAG’s collections, both are cornerstones of New Haven’s art scene.
Mauricio Cortes-Ortega ART ’16, thinks that before he shows his own art, he has to perfect his technique — in private. No matter how grand a student’s ambitions, school is the place to develop as an artist, cut off from the surrounding community. Cortes-Ortega is trying to learn what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it, before engaging with art in public.
In other words, though Yale’s two major galleries connect the University to the greater New Haven area, Yale students have a different experience of this relationship. New Haven is rich with artistic opportunities — public studios, galleries, murals and classes — and yet, students don’t always participate in this artistic world.
Téa Beer ’17, an Art major, said time prevented her personally from exploring the local arts scene, but she added that her department didn’t encourage a relationship between art students and New Haven.”
“I don’t think [the Yale Art major tries] to incorporate interaction with the town community in the art major curriculum,” she said. “Art is inherently pretty elitist, to be honest.” She didn’t condone this elitism, however, and she hopes to learn more about the art New Haven has to offer this semester.
In fact, most undergraduates interviewed expressed some interest in the local arts scene. They seemed almost apologetic when explaining that they weren’t familiar with many artists, and, like Beer, cited intentions to get to know the community in the coming semester. Some even would like to work on their own public art installations in New Haven.
When asked whether she’s done any public art here, Sam Vernon ART ’15 said she had not, though she has been commissioned to do public installations in the past: Before coming to graduate school, she worked on the Transform Neighborhoods Initiative in Prince Georges’ County, Maryland. Alongside participants from all parts of the neighborhood —the youngest was only three — Vernon painted a mural at a local library.
“It was truly incredible how many kinds of people came together,” she remembered. “I think local governments can and should work to create such dynamic, polyrhythmic environments.” She expressed regret that she hadn’t been able to participate in such collaborative projects in New Haven.
To counter this lack of dialogue between New Haven and Yale artists, Emily Hays ’16 has started the student organization Blue Haven. Hays hopes to create projects similar to the cross-generational cooperation Vernon experienced in Maryland. The group pairs Yale performance artists — slam poets, dancers, singers — with high schoolers who are interested in the same field. The pair then works together to create a new piece together.
“There’s definitely an egalitarian, social justice component — if we’re both creating art together, we’re erasing challenges that we both may have experienced,” she explained.
Though Blue Haven primarily focuses on performance art for the moment, it’s only in its first semester, and Hays intends to incorporate the visual arts in the future.
The collaborative nature of Hays’s project speaks to a new form of interactive public art. While museums such as the YCBA and the YUAG may attract visitors with free admission and student programs, this is a more passive approach. Hays, on the other hand, promotes active involvement, the conscious creation of an even vaster body of New Haven art.
Kwadwo Adae is a local painter with ideas like Hays’ and a studio on the corner of Orange and Chapel. (Orange Street is kind of a hub for art business — almost every other storefront near his apartment is a studio.) Adae believes firmly that art should be accessible to everyone and appreciates the presence of Yale’s museums in the city.
“We are spoiled here because we have resources like the YUAG, which has an enormous collection of art and is free,” he said.
As a public artist, he feels that he has a duty to create equally accessible spaces. He is even upset by the stairwell leading up to his own studio, as it prevents disabled persons from experiencing his art.
This passion for sharing art inspired him to teach, and today, he works in assisted living centers and retirement communities across the county. In other words, his artistic contributions to New Haven extend beyond his personal creations.
He recounted one of his most memorable teaching moments: “There was one woman who used to be an artist and had suffered a stroke. She lost use of her right hand, her painting hand. I was teaching her to draw again with her left hand. To do that, I used my left hand as well. So we struggled together.”
Adae spoke extensively about his students and clearly considers teaching one of the most meaningful aspects of his work. He and other non-student artists seemed sure of their niche in the community, expressing a commitment to active public services: teaching drawing technique, inspiring others to create and providing spaces for artistic appreciation.
His work is not public in the traditional sense; instead of just making art for people, he makes art with people. After all, public art is a changing field: Yale College Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan said, “Public art used to be just art, but outdoors. Now, it’s art that actively engages a broad community of people.”
Both types of artists thrive in New Haven, from those who teach in their studios to those who make outdoor installations.
Jonathan Waters, for instance, does not limit himself to the white walls of a gallery. Most of his creations are geometric abstract sculptures, gray and black stainless steel sheets welded into unique shapes and placed outside. Everything he makes is enormous; no passerby could possibly miss it. That’s why he loves the scale of his work: His pieces aren’t just public, they’re aggressively public.
“I like doing work outside because theoretically, it has a wider audience,” he said. “The casual guy on the street who might not walk into a museum will be able to experience it.”
Adae is also committed to New Haven’s public art. He praises pieces that aren’t in museums or galleries and believes that beautiful objects contribute to a high quality of life. To him, simply seeing something bright on your way to work can make you do your job better.
He is especially proud of an interactive mural he worked on in a mental health clinic. The bus windows are painted with chalk paint, so children in the waiting room are invited to make their mark on the piece.
Still, some New Haven artists are less invested in active audience participation. They would prefer that viewers meditate on the meaning of a work.
Matthew Feiner is multimedia artist and bike shop owner who has participated in City-Wide Open Studios, an initiative to support the visual arts in New Haven. He said his installation was so popular that on the second day of its exhibition, over a thousand people came. There was only standing room in the gallery. Though popularity would indicate success in the art industry, he was not satisfied.
“People just passed right in front of it; they didn’t have time to even see it!” he said.
This is why some prefer to show pieces in private settings: They don’t just want people to see their art. They want people to look at it.
Yet the private New Haven arts scene is not nearly as developed as its public counterpart. While locals and students have access to many free museums, they encounter far fewer private vendors and galleries.
Fred Giampietro, the owner of the new Giampietro Gallery on Chapel Street, considers himself a pioneer. Since opening in early January, Giampietro has tried to develop lasting business relations with Yale and the community; he has exhibited the works of several art graduate students. He dedicates himself finding up-and-comers, and his favorite thing about owning a gallery is discovering new talent.
His belief in these budding artists brought him into the private arts industry, and he thinks that collectors can build relationships with paintings on their walls.
“A lot of time people don’t think about how they can live with art and how that can enrich their lives,” he said.
The idea of living with a painting brings into question the spiritual value of art as well as the financial one. Before consumers can form intimate connections with a painting, they must spend.
Christian Ammon is a painter, graduate student and waiter from Trumbull, Connecticut. Though he is very busy, he prioritizes his art, and he is determined to make a career in the field. He expressed discontent that public art dissociates art from its monetary value. He showed recently at New Haven City-Wide Open Studios, an opportunity for which he was grateful, but he had reservations about the program.
“I want to be exposed to different social classes and races, but obviously, I want my art to sell, “ he said. “At Open Studios, there were a lot of lower class people kind of bumming around. I think my art would mainly target the middle- to upper-class people.”
To this end, he said he would advertise for Open Studios in the area surrounding Yale, instead of the outskirts of New Haven. He also feels that, as a graduate student, he can identify most with other young people.
It seems particularly difficult for New Haven artists to navigate the industry, to balance artistic vision with financial need. Ammon is still struggling with this, and though he is young, many older artists also spoke about sacrificing accessibility to large audiences in order to profit from their artwork.
To address these issues, the city’s public art institutions sponsor local artists. The YUAG, as part of its community outreach services, employs artists-in-residence for four-week periods several times a year. The artists do research, work on their projects and work with Yale School of Art students as well as undergraduates.
Right now, the artist in residence is Chris Ellis, who goes by “Daze.” Daze said he is enjoying his residency and feels lucky to have the opportunity to focus only on his artwork and his teaching.
When his residency began, he started a mural in the basement of the YUAG, accessible to museum visitors and students, in the same style as his earlier pieces. The mural has been and will be collaboration: Art students will help him with the design and creation.
And he doesn’t limit his students to marginal contributions. A large crowd scene in the middle of the wall, he explained, was an undergraduate’s idea. Daze considers art to be both an educational tool and a means of self-expression, and he didn’t mention any of the monetary concerns that worried Ammon.
The YUAG artist-in-residence position combines the many aspects of a public arts career. Daze has the financial support of a gallery as he engages with the local community through classes and workshops. And, of course, he’s able to create his own art. While there is certainly an artistic separation between Yale and New Haven, this program is a step towards long term collaboration.
Cahan, in speaking about public art in New Haven, cited “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” — the Morse lipstick statue. In 1970, it was still at Beinecke Plaza, and the red centerpiece wasn’t metal. Instead, it was inflatable — every few days, the tube would deflate and become flaccid. When this happened, the artist, Claes Oldenburg, would send somebody, or come himself, to re-inflate it, and, voilà, the lipstick was again erect.
“The piece was made right after Yale became coeducational,” Cahan said. “Obviously, these were gendered references; the blending of the symbol of femininity with the phallic symbol was a direct reference to coeducation.” She then mentioned the protests following the Black Panther Party trials, and the military tanks lining the streets of New Haven — hence the “caterpillar tracks”.
Several students said that all public art is, inherently, political. One even compared it to various news sources.. Another believed that the artist’s understanding of the political issue at hand is just as important as her technical skill.
By all of these definitions, “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” is an excellent example of “good” public art. It represents a whole host of intersections, intersections between Yale, New Haven and a wider political climate. Today, the Morse lipstick is divorced from much of its significance, but just outside the walls of the YUAG, the YCBA and the residential colleges, a vibrant arts world awaits exploration. In fact, it’s not an art scene; it’s an art web.
Correction: Feb. 6
A previous version of this article incorrectly named public artist Matthew Feiner as Michael Feiner.
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.
A life-size, maniacally-grinning, chainsaw-wielding man waited opposite the gallery entrance at the Yale School of Art’s Comprehensive Undergraduate Exhibition. His cheerful expression, drawn in charcoal across four wooden boards by Saybrook’s Perry Holmes ’17, invited his viewers to relax, take a deep breath, enjoy. This nonchalance added immediate levity to the exhibition, which featured work from every student from every fall semester art class. Perhaps the chainsaw wielder’s grin dictated the easy atmosphere within the gallery, as students and faculty wandered past the work of undergraduate artists in stolen minutes between squares on their iCals.
The Director of Undergraduate Studies for the art department, Lisa Kereszi, loosely curated the exhibition, grouping the work by courses. But none of the art on display was labeled with the course title, professor’s name, or artist’s name. At first, I found myself annoyed, craving more information. I am accustomed to a museum or a gallery where, at minimum, the name of the piece and the artist accompany the work itself. But as I reflected, I realized that this omission of labels proved fitting to showcase a vast variety of student work. Although born of necessity rather than a curatorial vision (she did not have the time to make labels), Kereszi’s label-less curation led the audience around the gallery and created the exhibition’s laid-back attitude. Student visitors to the show had often been members of the fall classes, and this format prohibited them from bee-lining to their own work. Without clear boundaries between classes, the exhibition asked us, the audience, to interact with all of Yale’s undergraduate artists as a collective.
And what this collective displays is a remarkable variety, in both the range of media explored and the personal style of the artists. Painting professor Sam Messer described the exhibition’s unifying thread, and the overarching teaching philosophy of Yale’s art department, as “visual thinking.” Motivated by the process of visual thought rather than the product, the art department and the Comprehensive Exhibition focus more on what the students have to say than the precision with which they say it.
With so many students having so many things to say, personal voice proved a refreshing continuity throughout the show. I found myself marveling at the diverse ways students interpreted a portrait assignment fora photography class. Although the assignment seemed rudimentary, the portraits ranged from a gestural photograph presumably captured using a long exposure, to a clean and arresting emotional image of a heavily made-up woman. Within one assignment, students created bold and emotional pieces, no two of which were alike.
Like these portraits, the typography portion of the exhibition stood out for the diversity of interpretation within one assignment. Students experimented with text from Italo Calvino, a modernist Italian writer, treating the very lettering as a malleable character to de- (and subsequently re-) construct. They interpreted his text in vastly different ways, bringing humor, subtlety, geography and full experimentation. In one of the works, Calvino’s text assumed a topographical landscape. In another, the words “Alive” and “Dead” vied for space in the middle of a stark, broken composition. Simply curated, the 24 works hung in an evenly-spaced grid. This construction avoided distraction, allowing the pieces to operate uninhibited.
Another example of the loose, expression-driven approach to understanding the visual thought process came in the small and dynamic compositions from Messer’s “Painting and Time” class, which he pointed out to me. Students had less than two hours to complete each in-class assignment in locations ranging from YSO practice to the Peabody Museum to the pool at Payne Whitney. I admit to having initially overlooked these small, haphazard works. I was too caught up in my own conceptions of what “deserves” to go in a show. After a lifetime of going to museums and galleries, I expected the work hanging on walls to be finished, finessed, something closer to an aesthetic ideal. But the paintings from Messer’s class explored the journey of creating art: linking mediums to subject matter, experimenting with changing light in a landscape, or rendering motion in a still image. As a result, the small paintings proved to be loose and energetic mood studies of location.
As I left the gallery, I turned for a once-over glance at the exhibition. Again, the chainsaw man’s grin confronted me, and I almost offered a little salute. Perhaps the real source of his humor was his direct contrast with the neutral still life compositions common to most introductory drawing classes. Even within one course or assignment, students used fundamental techniques as springboards to render moments of their own lives in image. The result? A visual kaleidoscope of diverse and delightful personal narratives and styles.
The last time I altered a book, the change was a tea stain and the move did not require much imagination. But after seeing “Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection” at the Yale University Art Gallery, which runs until Feb. 1, I’ve been challenged to view material books as foundations for creativity. There are many dictionaries in this exhibit, but the Noah Websters here are the artists. The skeletal definition of a book is something with leaves — with their recto and verso sides — and a spine to gather the pages together. And then there is the other necessary, universal experience of the book for the reader — the mystery of the closed book, and the revelation of the book opened. The objects on display explore the space created by that experience: They stretch, alter and redefine what it means to “open” a book.
Many of the pieces here are entry points to other worlds through form rather than content. Megan Williams’s “Altered Book Landscapes” and Guy Laramee’s “Vulcan” and “Sinking” were both invitations to envision a paper-thin environment, topography made of paper. Pamela Paulsrud’s “Landscape Narratives II” was probably the most delicate act of alteration: a series of book-stones polished into sedimentary rocks, with colorful bindings deposited on top of white sandstone pages. James Elaine’s “Worm Hole Book” and Jana Kluge’s “Book written by the Sea” evoked some very hungry caterpillars and ocean underworlds, respectively. And one could even be transported to the Peabody Museum not too far away: Elaine’s “Triumph of Venice” contained a pressed bird (feathers and all), while his “Turtle Book” held a medium-sized flattened turtle. Don’t read this one at the dinner table, kids.
Whereas many objects in the exhibit were altered nearly beyond recognition, there were two types of printed matter that remained identifiable: bibliographical and Biblical works. Dictionaries and Deuteronomy, encyclopedias and Exodus — these are some of the pieces that claim to serve as reference material for the world. Yet in “Odd Volumes”, these texts that control and claim wisdom are exposed to natural and manmade manipulation. Linda Ekstrom’s “Work of the Bees” involved a rewriting of the Bible by bees, with chapter headings obscured by honeycomb. Doug Beube’s “Books of Knowledge Standing Up Against the Elements” showed burnt, battered encyclopedias huddling close. Terri Garland’s “Square Bible,” a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, sat pained but intact and, perhaps, ultimately hopeful. Scott McCarney’s “New Age Encyclopedia Index” ecstatically unraveled its entries all over the place. We are left to judge whether this artistic exploration of books of knowledge is chaos or creativity.
I finally reached a table and found objects that I could interact with — “You can touch these!” — so I promptly put away my laminated gallery guide. I peeped through a keyhole in a dictionary at a dictionary smaller still. I crinkled my eyes and played stop-motion with flipbooks for grown-ups. Finally I reached a large purple box with a profusion of flaps. In it were a series of purple books, spines with a fragmented letter apiece. “Suripesi!” they said, botching the spelling. I could see a lonely serif on one end, waiting to be reunited with an erstwhile “E.” It was reassuring to see how human hands had opened these books and very humanly re-shelved them the wrong way. I did not rearrange them. A slim, closed volume is always a surprise.
I arrived 30 minutes before closing time, a guard gruffly informed me. I shuffled into the delicate lighting of the Yale University Art Gallery lobby from the gorgeous darkening day outside. Making my way to a map of the YUAG I located my destination: Photography, 4th floor. As I traipsed through gallery after gallery, a guard directed me each time as they learned about my destination via their headset. Each time, they puzzled as to why I would want to go to that exhibit in particular. Finally, I located the Yale photography gallery: a small, high-ceilinged, windowless room right in front of the elevator, containing nothing but a bench at its center with 20 to 30 photographs hanging on the walls; a sort of afterthought.
But “Photography at Yale” is anything but an afterthought. It’s the product of Margaret Neil ’14, whose senior thesis explored the history of the photography program at the School of Art. The exhibit serves as an account of Yale’s recent yet rich history in photography, one that is both national and international, gelatin silver and chromogenic. The photos span from 1929, before Yale even had a photography program, to 2013 and provide glimpses of different techniques and time periods.
A quick counterclockwise turn around the room reveals that the arrangement is neither chronological nor topical; rather, it’s explorational. Without hidden agenda or intended meaning, it invites the mind to wander. Although each photo forms part of the collection, the nontraditional arrangement allows for each to be considered within its own context, unadulterated by the significance of the neighboring works. Almost every photograph is shot by a different photographer, providing a small taste of the artists’ work and their particular view of the world.
Gracing the back wall, an untitled work by Gregory Crewdson ART ‘88 is one of the gallery’s richest photos in both color and implication, graces the back wall. It’s the first photograph you see when you walk into the gallery, a stark dark rectangle softly lit from behind. Upon closer inspection, blues and greens emerge from the shadows, depcting a backwoods lot with a makeshift shelter, tucked among the branches, set between a misplaced suburban neighborhood and a misty river. A lone figure faces away from the camera, his naked back softly illuminated by the fading light. The photograph contains both a dreamlike essence and a noticeable tension. Its sheer window-like size invites the viewer to immerse herself in the scene.
A photograph to its right, the work of Laura Letinsky’s steady hand, depicts a more intimate scene: a couple sprawled on a bed, the man on his back with his arm bent behind his head, glancing casually at the woman before him, her shirt off and her back toward the camera. The photograph, drawn from a collection entitled “Venus Inferred,” lives up to the series’ name. There’s an ease to the unspoken conversation within the photo, a love implied in a glance we cannot fully catch.
Each photograph is a burst, a moment in time, a collection of photons trapped with the click of a shutter; each is meant to fuel conversation and exploration. Tucked away on the top floor in the back corner of the art gallery, “Photography at Yale” gets little viewing. During the half-hour I spent wandering around that one room, several heads popped in to investigate only to quickly deduce that the exhibit simply wasn’t worth their time, even as entertainment during the five-minute wait for the elevator. But one short glance misses entirely the value contained within that one windowless room, the possible discussions and wandering thoughts, the brief escape into a space where any idea is accepted and no perception is wrong.
As I was about to leave at the behest of a grumpy guard, I looked back at the lonely bench at the center of the room. Ignoring the guard’s complaints, I sat down, sinking into the comfy black leather and calmly glancing around the room. When I finally left, I knew I would be coming back to peer through these photographical windows, to find new insights and to further explore the hidden realities contained behind the clear, reflective glass.