Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Nature underfoot at Seton Gallery

Seton Art Gallery at the University of New Haven
Dodds Hall, University of New Haven, 300 Boston Post Rd., West Haven, (203) 931-6065
Constructed Ecology

The first thing I notice when entering the Seton Gallery to check out Constructed Ecology is the smell of grass (the lawn type). The floor is covered with sod and the gallery space is sectioned off, creating two cubicles. The juxtaposition of structure and a signifier of the natural environment—living grass—challenge visitors to contemplate our relationship to nature. The exhibit is the joint effort of summer artists-in-residence Michael Galvin and Kyle Skar with the multimedia interventions of Lisa Amadeo, Nicki Chavoya and Gary Velush.

While the grass is in one sense a signifier of nature it is also an archetypal example of the domestication of nature, the human urge to dominate and control nature. The sod is laid down in rectangular segments, like a living living room carpet. The visitor's experience as one walks through the gallery is symbolic of the human impact on nature—taking it for granted, trampling it underfoot.

According to gallery director Laura Marsh, the grass is watered twice a day. Still, much of it just clinging to life, brown and dispirited. But in corners and hugging the walls along the well-trod paths, green tangles endure.

Photo from the "Constructed Ecology" opening courtesy of Seton Gallery


The architectural structures function on two levels, serving both to break up the space into geometric pathways and to create rooms housing the multimedia responses of Amadeo, Chavoya and Velush. The first "room" I enter features the looping video piece "Digital Window" by Nicki Chavoya and Lisa Amadeo. The video is a succession of scenes overlaid with found sounds, bits of banal everyday conversation and static. The video, filmed throughout New England, features scenes of bucolic woods, views of suburbia, piles of freshly cut wood in a forest clearing, cats feeding at their bowls, big box retail stores. The accumulation of imagery suggests a deep undercurrent of alienation and even looming threat. The serenity of one suburban scene is belied by the fact that Amadeo and Chavoya have filmed a cul-de-sac, the dead end of the growth imperative. In another short clip—in what I have to believe was a highly fortuitous circumstance—they captured a big truck for "Global Environmental Services" turning a suburban corner like something out of a Don DeLillo novel. All is not well in paradise.

"Digital Window": Video by Lisa Amadeo and Nicki Chavoya


In the other cubicle, Gary Velush set up a sound installation incorporating readings of the work of James Joyce, natural and mechanical sounds, strange rumblings. This cubicle is more enclosed, claustrophobic. The plywood walls are painted black with the exception of numerous unpainted areas in which the wood grain looks like ghostly figures with the knots for eyes. Cut into the walls are six portals, which are painted gold. Within each portal, Michael Galvin has placed a couple of plaster casts of mushrooms daubed with gold paint. The environment references altered states, heightened sensory awareness, magic and the spiritual quality of nature.



Constructed Ecology, which is open through Oct. 26, prompts contemplation of our relationship to nature. In thinking about that I return to the sensory image at the start of this post, that of the smell of grass when I entered the gallery. Gallery director Laura Marsh sent me photos from the opening and one of the striking things is how green and fresh the ersatz lawn looked. In its decay, this aspect of the installation speaks volumes. We were given paradise and have put up a parking lot.

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