Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

An environment for creating art

50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Marie Celeste
Through Sept. 16, 2011.

Thematically, the works in Marie Celeste, the current show at Artspace, are connected by their engagement with contemporary issues of ecology and the human footprint on the environment. Specifically, Marie Celeste references "colony collapse disorder"—the disappearance of worker bees from their colonies, a phenomenon that threatens key pillars of the food chain.

The works are drawn from a range of media and practices from the traditional (drawing, painting) to the current 21st century moment (installation, interactive art).

Of particular note in the latter category is Mayumi Nishida's (Web) "Introduction to Water." Employing LED lights, monofilament, water, ceramic pot, solar panel, galvanized tank and wooden dippers, "Introduction" invites the viewer to experience directly the human impact on a [constructed] natural world.

In the darkened space, visitors can grab one of the wooden dippers, fill up their cup with water from the steel tub and pour it into the squat ceramic vase situated on a platform in the middle of the tub. The action of pouring the water into the vase activates a series of circuits and sensors—powered by a solar collector in a nearby window—and cause tiny lights hanging overhead to blink in a random fashion.

"Introduction" is powerful on two inter-connected levels. First, it is a visual delight. There is a backyard simplicity to the almost altar-like presence of the water-filled tub with the floating wooden ladles and the earthenware vase on the platform in the middle. When the lights are activated, their pinpoint flashing evokes thoughts of summer fireflies, stars or crystalline drops of rain. The work is deepened on the conceptual level: Human intervention has consequences. In the case of this artificial natural system, human agency is salutary. But that's not always—perhaps isn't even often—the case. "Introduction" reminds us that we are a part of the system whether we consciously recognize it or not.

Nick Lamia's "Cities for our Kids' Kids' Kids' Kids' Kids' Kids'" also invites interaction. This work, which occupies a large corner of the main Artspace gallery, also has an ongoing video component. Lamia's work combines wall drawing, the display of two abstract geometrical paintings on canvas, a framework of parallel lines of yellow string and hundreds of colored wood blocks. Visitors are invited to rearrange the blocks; a camera will record the variations over time to be sequenced into a video when the show is over. In this work, the landscape is an object of both contemplation and interaction. It is a landscape that references the contemporary urban environment in its geometric forms, and the natural environment in its wealth of color. When I visit this afternoon it is an environment in which chaos and randomness are only intermittently broken up by the imposition of order by Lamia's contributions and those of the viewers.

In the same large gallery, there is a wise curatorial juxtaposition: Erika Blumenfeld's photographs of Antarctica with Shari Mendelson's sculptures made out of discarded and reused plastic, aluminum foil and acrylic polymer. The works share a bright transparent luminosity that contrasts with the rich colors of the surrounding works in the room.

Blumenfeld's photos revel in the abstract undulations of layered frozen forms in Antarctica—the play of sunlight and shadow on a glacial surface, the dimpling and striation of ice. But as cold as these images look, they don't look cold enough. The light on the surface of overlapping layers of ice, cracks and fissures, glimpses of almost Caribbean blue—all these things hint at climate stress on the region's delicate eco-system.

Mendelson's works recycle contemporary waste material and antique forms; in the gallery shared with Blumenfeld, there is a sculpture of a supine pig ("Reclining Animal") and a large vase flecked with shiny infusions of aluminum foil ("Silver Vessel"). Mendelson is playing with cross-referencing tropes here—the relics of antiquity being reincarnated in the trash of today. It's a cheeky conceit. After all, the objects she is referencing are what survived hundreds of years in ruins; sometimes they have literally been found in excavated garbage dumps. What cultural signifiers will we be leaving behind? I've got one word for you, Benjamin: Plastics.

Joseph Smolinski's (Web) drawings depict a world in which nature and technology are in conflict. In his stark, draftsman-like imagery, animals like snapping turtles, woodpeckers and blue whales appear to be trying to get us to hang up the phone by disconnecting the cell phone transmitters disguised as tree branches. This is high brow kitsch, streaked with queasy irony.

Stephen Bush's two paintings depict beekeepers in luridly colored environments. Dressed in their protective outfits, they look like members of a haz-mat spill cleanup team. Bush's vistas are pastoral but chemically charged, bringing to mind the line in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise that "ever since the airborne toxic event, the sunsets had become almost unbearably beautiful." Eva Struble's (Web) paintings find anarchic beauty in post-industrial rubble. "Cambridge Iron I" is a veritable cacophony of discarded appliances, metal cables and wires and other refuse.

Artist Alison Williams is also a committed gardener and that passion is reflected in her art practice. "Glasshouse #3" is a ragged, hand-built greenhouse or potting shed, assembled from discarded scrap lumber, door frames and windows. Visitors are invited to enter the structure, which has shelves laden with transparent vials of caramel, amber and burgundy colored fluids.

Williams' back-to-the-land inventiveness extends to The Lot near the corner of Chapel and Orange streets. Williams conceptualized and oversaw the public art installation "Homage to Guerrilla Gardening." (See Wikipedia for info on the "guerrilla gardening" concept.) This project recycles discarded and donated household materials into a quirky and life-affirming community garden that enriches this public space. Planters—some made from old sinks sunk into the ground—overflow with basil, mint, marigolds and ore. A couple of toilets are flush with dirt and find new use as planters. There are artsy benches built from discarded wood and ringed with planters salvaged from old oil drums.

"Homage to Guerrilla Gardening" is a perfect coda to a provocative show—an artistic intervention that the community that brings modern art into everyday life in a way that is thought-provoking, life-affirming and accessible. In fact, the presence of this art park and sculpture garden in downtown New Haven seems almost…natural.

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