Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Artspace conversations

Artspace Untitled (Space) Gallery
50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Don't Know Much About History
Project Room: Jason Sibley: Interaction Variation #1
Through Jan. 20, 2006.

I plan on writing a review of Don't Know Much About History later in the week. For this post, I just wanted to share some of my conversations with a few of the artists who attended Saturday night's opening reception.


Speaking to reception guests, artist Charles Browning said, "One of the things that binds together all the artists in this show is a quote by William Faulkner: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.'"

Browning noted that the images he is working from, in making his paintings, "are art historical in nature." He is looking at art from the past—and particularly this country's past—not so much as aesthetic masterpieces (though they may well be) but more as ideological statements.

"For me, the interest in history is in the way history is a narrative and how do we receive that narrative," he told me. "What is the function? Who writes it? Who reads it? Who is it for? And I'm examining all those questions."

One of Browning's paintings in the show, "A Good Chance," depicts two archetypal American backwoodsmen in a canoe on an idyllic river. But they are sitting at either end, backs to each other and paddling in opposite directions. The work was inspired by the prints of Currier & Ives, as well as the paintings of Albert Bierstadt and other artists associated with the Hudson River School.

It's not hard to imagine, say, historical paintings of the Civil War as ideological documents. But Browning also sees the agenda in a Bierstadt landscape.

"It is a propaganda piece that was creating an image of America as an unspoiled wilderness it was our right to conquer," Browning said to me. "Part of what I'm trying to do with my paintings is to subvert that mythology of frontier propaganda."


Titus Kaphar looks at the art of the past through a similar perspective. His "New Revolution," he said, was the "result of a performance at Yale."

Specifically, Kaphar, based a large painting on a detail in John Trumbull's "Battle of Bunker Hill." Kaphar, who is African-American, blew up the section of the painting that features the only African-American. Then, in a performance in the Yale University Art Gallery before Trumbull's original, Kaphar cut out the figures in his own painting.

"The idea behind that was-when the figures are removed, this painting becomes a window through which to view the original," he told the assembled guests at Artspace.

Speaking with him afterwards, he told me that he had "always been enamored with historical painting." In fact, he had a minor in history at Yale to go along with his major in art.

"As I started making more paintings, I found myself separated from this history," he told me. How so? Part of it, he said, was realizing how far away in time we are from when the works were created.

"I started really going to museums and looking and really feeling how I felt about these paintings," he said. His "interventions," as he calls his manipulated canvases, are a comment on the historical works.

Kaphar noted that when Trumbull painted "Battle of Bunker Hill," it was important to him that it be a portrait of the participants. Trumbull, according to Kaphar, visited living veterans of the historic fight. (Trumbull contributed to the founding of the Yale University Art Gallery in 1832, when he donated over 100 paintings to the fledgling museum.) Kaphar used fellow Yale students to recreate the poses in the original.

"There was one figure—a black figure—in the lower corner. That revolution was not for him. It was really not for him," Kaphar said.

The black figure in Trumbull's "Battle of Bunker Hill" may be incidental. But the issue of racism is anything but incidental to American history.


Phil Whitman grew up in upstate New York near the Revolutionary War Saratoga battlefield. Visits to historic battlefields are coupled in his consciousness with memories of family. With a series of colored pencil drawings, displayed on landscaped shelves, Whitman sought to link his personal history "with this national history that [specific locations] are supposed to be commemorating."

Another work, "The Historic Berkshires: Prisoner Pile Along the Waloomsac," draws a correlation between an event that occurred during the Revolutionary War and more recent history. Made in 2004 for "an ironic show about out of the way tourist sites in the Berkshires," the piece features about a half dozen figures sculpted out of Super Sculpy and painted to look like Revolution-era Loyalists and Hessians. Whitman said that the battle was a rout by the American insurgents. They tied up the Tory and German prisoners.

"The Americans were robbing their watches and money. Not only stealing their stuff but actively trying to humiliate them. Dressing up in their clothes," he told me. Whitman posed his figures in a pile akin to that seen in the Abu Ghraib photos. "It seemed to really correlate with this stuff."

When he was taken to an historic battlefield as a child, he "liked that you could see a diorama and then go out to the actual place." He sees his works almost as interpretations of the dioramas that enchanted him as a child. With the colored pencil drawings, he chose to display them as though they were markers overlooking a historic site rather than just hang them on the wall.

For the drawing "Parental Guidance: Breymann Redoubt Diorama Case" he actually placed an image of his mother in the picture. She is seen, with a baby in a snuggly on her chest, amid milling soldiers loading their muskets.


Jason Sibley's "Interaction Variation #1," a sculptural installation in the Project Room, also has its origins in childhood remembrances. Specifically, for Sibley, it was the play sets he had as a kid with their action figures and backgrounds to arrange.

The connection is that "Interaction Variation #1" combines two separate sculptural pieces of Sibley's. One is arranged on the floor. A mountainous form in the center is made of blackened waxed steel. It is surrounded by cut pieces of medium density fiberboard, or MDF, painted white. The jagged cut MDF plates look like cracked ice or parched dry land. The second component of the work consists of suspended forms hanging from the ceiling. Sibley calls these his "artificial suicide machines."

They started with the idea that I wanted to make a Looney Tunes-looking bomb coming from the sky," Sibley told me. The concept morphed so that the forms, made out of hydrocal, look almost like a stylized heart.

"Each individual piece has its own thematic properties, or meaning, to me," said Sibley. But when they are mixed together, viewers can form their own opinions on what it means.

"If I start answering too many questions, there's no room for anybody else," said Sibley.


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