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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Erector Square: Short takes

City-Wide Open Studios
50 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Erector Square: Short takes
Oct. 13. 2007.

There was a musical folk duo playing acoustic guitar and violin as I entered the Erector Square version of an alternative space. Eight artists were occupying the large open room, showing a potpourri of paintings, prints, photography and drawings.

I was immediately drawn to Dorothy Powers' work, a series of Xerox photo enlargements printed on canvas. According to Powers, they were taken on a windy beach. They depicted a woman in a black burka, struggling with the garment in the wind. Powers told me she "had to take the images almost nonstop because of the cold." The freedom of gestural figure drawing contrasted with the confinement of the garment.

"It started with my interest in little girls not going to school under the Taliban," Powers said. Investigating the plight of women in Afghanistan, Powers bought a burka on eBay. "I put one of these on and I couldn't see and couldn't breathe and I went into a rage."

The photographs were touched up with paint and charcoal. Powers said the images ended up being "kind of a combination."

"Starting with a point and shoot camera, because I'm not a photographer!" Powers said, laughing. "The beach, the wind and the burka."


In a little room, almost a dead end hallway, off the main room, Deborah Zervas was showing a series of collaged landscapes. A landscape designer, Zervas told me that her approach to these works stemmed from her dissatisfaction with the traditional ways of representing spaces in landscape design.

She starts with a first layer of textured wallpaper and then adds layer after layer of paper—handmade, colored, textured, rich--to build the image.

"I want to find ways to put the viewer in the landscape. I thought texture might be a way to grab you and pull you in," she said.

A geologist before she became a landscape designer, Zervas relies on her deep knowledge of what underlies the visible surface in creating her collages. Several of the works depicted Western landscapes, specifically vistas of the Mojave Desert at the foothills of the Kingston Range.

"They are very real places I've worked as a geologist," Zervas said. Using photographs as starting points, she then works from memory.

There is an earthiness to the collages, brought out by the wisps of fibers—conjuring clouds in the sky or tenacious desert foliage in the parched earth—and the texture of the various papers. Delicate and deep, they are evocative of space.


Ruth Sack was showing a number of paintings, including ones of leaves, flowers and butterflies. I was particularly struck by one beautiful abstraction, "Pastel Atmospheric." Rendered with encaustic and oil stick on birch board, it was densely textured with a built-up physicality of surface. A landscape of warm earthtone colors, Sack created effective contrasts with passages of soft purple and luminous turquoise.


This was painter Eileen Eder's first Open Studios without an Erector Square studio to call home. Eder has built a studio at her shoreline home but returned to Erector Square to show in the Building 7 gallery. A series of landscape and still life paintings were displayed. A couple of drawings echoed still lifes.

"They are at opposite ends of the spectrum because this is shaping and color," Eder said, pointing to the paintings, "and this is pure line, with which I try and express the same thing."

The paintings have a warmth and grace. "East Rock No. 1," from Eder's New Haven park series, shows a path behind the Eli Whitney Barn. It beautifully conveyed the sense of entering into a darkening wood in fall.


Printmaker Barbara Harder has long been interested in layered imagery, often sequencing inked cutout shapes on top of each other to create large works suggestive of topographical and geological forms. In recent years Harder has taken her fondness for layering further, combining her printmaking with a personal form of mixed media collage and installation.

In her small piece in the Main Exhibition, “J Topog 8,” there is a torn section of printed book paper included. Harder told me it was part of book of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, that she found in a French flea market.

"It was insect eaten when I bought it. I brought it home and put it in the freezer for three months to kill the insects," said Harder.

A lot of her works are inspired by a trip she took to Japan. She is printing on soft, translucent Asian papers and layering them to explore the juxtaposition of forms and colors. One of the works in progress included an image of a tree that Harder had photographed in Japan. She enlarged the image in Photoshop, erasing everything but the tree itself. The image was printed out on Mylar and a friend cut it out for her. The Mylar cutout was then inked and used in printing. In using the translucent, billowing papers, Harder is walking a fine line. While she likes it when her shapes are "a little hard to see," she wants to find the point at which they "pop" against a background.

Harder is also incorporating graphite line drawings in some of her works. I thought the pencil tracing that was part of “J Topog 8” was of a map. In fact, she is making tracings of ink that she has thrown on paper. The technique is an extension of her long-standing employment of the vagaries of printmaking to create the illusion of land masses and geography.

"I'm trying to find icons in nature, and sort of simplify and reconstruct them in some way to make something new to look at, in ways that a viewer wouldn't have thought of," said Harder.


On facing walls of Fethi Meghelli's studio were works that testified to the breadth of his artistic vision. Three large charcoal drawings of faces melding into each other were draped on one wall. They are part of a continuation of his War Series, a commemoration of the victims of armed conflict. In front of the drawings, hanging from overhead pipes, were long slack strings of black yarn, representing tears. The installation's title is "Veil of Tears." It is a distillation of sadness and suffering.

But on the opposite wall was a work that radiates the joy of life. Like the faces in charcoal, the features of this young woman are rendered in Meghelli's signature style. Titled "Algerian Young Woman"—Meghelli seemed to be coming up with the title on the spot—it was painted on an Algerian pillow case that Meghelli opened up and used as a canvas. The colorful image was painted with acrylics and glitter and Meghelli added pins along her crown, a tiara of sorts. There is a rich stippling of colors, a background of gold and hair of glistening blue glitter. Her dress invites the eye with a wonderful richness of abstract color detail.


What do you do if you have scraps of painted paper around? Victoria Branch engaged in some creative recycling. With leftover painted paper from an art theory class, and plastic mesh she had found years before in a dumpster, she created a series of collage paintings.

"I love color. It's very evocative. It brings feelings out of people," said Branch. Using acrylics stretched with soft gel, she paints her canvas in one color. Then she takes painted paper of a complementary color and rips it into strips.

One of the works is called "9/11" because its long angled strips of paper on the painted background are reminiscent of the jutting skeletal girders left after the World Trade Center buildings' collapse. Her husband told her "You're such a hippie!" because a couple of the works are titled "Purple Haze" and "Purple Sunshine."

"They start out fairly solid and you start ripping them up and putting them together and you get interesting patterns," Branch said of her method.


In her blurb for the CWOS Artist Directory, Julie Fraenkel wrote, "I have an abiding interest in the physical embodiment of psychological states, the sense of the internal becoming visibly external." This can be seen in a quartet of moving portraits of young women on the wall next to her studio door.

Fraenkel paints her board with black gesso. She adheres a coating of thin yellow tissue, which she scrapes and draws on. To set off, the portrait, she adds another coat of black gesso in the background. The way the tissue adheres to the backing creates interesting organic textures. The faces seem to radiate feeling.

There was an interesting visual juxtaposition between the predominantly black and white portraits and a series of color paintings to their left. The paintings depict multi-layered domestic interiors. They are painted with flat mostly primary colors inside black lines, emphasizing a measure of rigid control, a formal contrast to the sketchy gesso and tissue works with their undercurrent of chaotic, turbulent emotion.

In each, five apartments are on top of each other. But in only one in each work, something momentous is happening—a moment of mythic passion, an angel swooping in on a baby, cherubs picking at a hollow-eyed lonely woman. The other apartments are empty, the world in a state of repose.

The paintings were inspired, in part, by Fraenkel's reading of an excerpt of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

"You think how strange it is that all these people are going on with their lives while she is going through this big moment," said Fraenkel. "Epic things are happening among normal places and you don't know. You're off in your own separate place."

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