Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Caveman Robot within each of us

John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven, (203) 624-8055
Jason Robert Bell: Tetragrammatron
Dec. 9—Jan. 21, 2007

Step inside the stately John Slade Ely House and glance to the right. There stands the imposing figure of Caveman Robot. And I can't but wonder: Is the gleeful crazed grin on Caveman Robot's face symbolic of Jason Robert Bell's disdain for the pretensions of the high art world?

The 10-year retrospective Tetragrammatron, which was previously shown at Manchester Community College, offers an over-caffeinated comic book sensibility. Bell, working in an abundance of media, piles rampant lo-cult images one on top of the other. The walls are hung with large paintings but also lots of drawings and comic art pages. Scattered throughout the various rooms are abstract found object sculptures Bell calls "Trashures."

With a slightly different set of circumstances, Bell might have been an untutored "outsider artist," churning up a prodigious output for his own amusement and nothing more. According to his artist biography, he was "blessed with dyslexia" and "had the proverbial youth as an economically disenfranchised and misunderstood, yet talented outcast." But apparently Bell made the right impression on the right people. He got into and graduated from an arts high school in his native Houston, obtained a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art.

And he's painting furry Yeti women, constructing Caveman Robots and leaving Trashures on sidewalks.

It's not hard to see the appeal for Bell of Caveman Robot and Kala, Bell's rampaging and dreadlocked female Sasquatch. Both creations are noble savages, rooted in—but transcending—the primitive. Caveman Robot has the metallic, constructed body and the taillight-red eyes but he wears an animal fur and carries a big wooden club. Kala is big and naked; she attacks SUV's but also plays the harp. Then there's Bell, with his serious academic training and his love of comic books—"Lucifer in Reality" features blatant swipes from comics great Jack Kirby—and restless energy.

Caveman Robot is the joint creation of Bell and Shoshanna Weinberger. The character has been featured in Bell's self-published comic books (which can be perused at the exhibition). Adventures of Caveman Robot: The Musical, with Bell in the role of Caveman Robot, has been performed at The Brick Theater in Brooklyn, New York. There are photos of the performance on display at the Ely House. From the looks of them, the show has something of a Dada-meets-Rocky Horror vibe.

The imagery in the Kala paintings is raw and laced with comic book anger: bared teeth, flaring nostrils, violence. But at the same time, Bell evinces an exceptional affection for the materiality of paint and the emotional power of color. In the Kala works "Roar and "Kala Meets the Sun" and the non-Kala "Zeus Pater," Bell applies paint to the canvas with gleeful abandon. For "Kala Meets the Sun," painted this year, Bell used spray paint, acrylics and epoxy as well as oils to imbue the figure with a full measure of nobility. Paint is loaded onto the canvas of "Zeus Pater," painted more than a decade ago. Smeared colors swirl together and form miniature landscapes. There is recognizable, if cartoony, imagery in this work. But "Zeus Pater" is better appreciated for its elements of abstraction.

Bell often paints Kala raging in defense of a natural world under assault. In "Deer Death Man and Man Death Deer," two large canvases hung side by side, she confronts a hunter who has just killed a deer. As with many of Bell's paintings and drawings, there's a bit of folk artist in his approach. His depiction of the hunter is somewhat stiff. It's as though the academy-trained artist is at war with the primitive and the works represent an uneasy truce. "Kala Meets the Sun" is one of the more effective paintings in part because there is a fluidity to the rendering of her figure that is absent in many of his other works. It makes me wonder if in "Deer Death Man" Bell just didn't take the time to breathe life into the figure of the hunter. His output is prodigious but it would benefit tremendously by an emphasis on greater naturalism in his figures.

An anarchic sense of humor is found in such items as "Unicorn Turds for sell on Ebay." A pile of almonds painted with glitter is accompanied by a large lo-resolution digital image of the aforementioned magic feces. "Daily Back-Ups" presents 50 self-portraits. The punchline? They are all painted with oils on floppy discs. (And Bell did so in 1997, when floppys were still useful.)

Then there are the Trashures. Bell makes spiky found object sculptures and installs—or "deploys"—them in public places. The Trashures shown at the Ely House are "undeployed." According to his Web site, the Trashures project began as a way to rid his studio of unfinished projects that were taking up space. But Bell became intrigued by the conceptual possibilities of the Trashures. As he writes on his Web site:

In the end these pieces are really about the shock of context. The Trashsures are objects that within a gallery would be objects to be look at and judged for aesthetic value. When placed on the street they are object that foster confusion. Every person that passes them has to choose what they are a piece of trash or a treasure.

With his artwork, Bell himself straddles the subjective line of trash versus treasure. He does so with considerable skill and self-awareness. Tetragrammatron is a notable and enjoyable show, not the least because it manages to take artmaking seriously without making "Serious Art."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Paper and Stone in Westville

Kehler Liddell Gallery
873 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9555
Matthew Garrett & Gar Waterman: Paper and Stone
Dec. 7, 2006-Jan. 7, 2007

Press release

Photographer Matthew Garrett has been mining the rich vein of the American social landscape for two decades. The current exhibition centers on color images made by Garrett this year in Louisiana, Michigan, Ontario and Connecticut. The images themselves can be read as a report from the near horizon-simultaneously familiar and foreign-in which the world around you seems to have been slightly rearranged, and presented for your inspection.

For Gar Waterman, it is the self-contained and enigmatic nature of seeds, with their latent potential for life in all its myriad forms, that proves irresistible. Waterman carves voluptuous curves of exotic marbles to reveal the exuberance of a seed as it germinates, while the cool patinaed surface of a cast bronze seed pod lies quiescent on an elegant glass and steel base. According to the sculptor, "Seeds are symbols of beginnings and an end in and of themselves, mysterious packages whose forms can only hint at the life contained within."

Opened in the spring of 2004, Kehler Liddell Gallery is located at 873 Whalley Avenue, in the heart of New Haven's Historic Westville Village. The gallery currently represents twelve Connecticut artists, with monthly exhibits by two or more artists. Gallery hours are Thursday and Friday 12-6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Closing reception at Studio 323 in Hartford

Studio 323
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 727-9170
Reflection Patina Pattern
Closing reception, Thurs., Dec. 21, 6-8 p.m.

Press release

Reflection Patina Pattern, the inaugural exhibition at one of Hartford's newest and unique art spaces, closes. Please join us for a reception for the artists at Studio 323, a working studio and exhibition space at 56 Arbor Street in Hartford.

Artists Sharokin Betgevargiz and Jon Eastman are scheduled to speak about their work, graphic design and assemblage, respectively. Studio 323 founder and artist, Colin Burke, will talk about his photography and painting, as well as the origins and philosophy of the space and the plans for 2007.

This event is free and open to the public.

Bottom of the ninth, and art is up

ALVA Gallery
54 State St., New London, (860) 437-8664
American Legacies: Who's on First
Ends Jan. 12, 2007.

Baseball is the one team sport worth following. Where football and basketball teams are at the mercy of the clock, baseball is unbound by the dictates of time. The flower of hope—the possibility of the stunning comeback—blooms until the moment of the final out. There is as much craft in hitting, fielding, pitching well as there is in many an art form.

The ALVA Gallery in New London has presented a Legacies show every holiday season since opening in 1999. Until last year these shows had been organized as multi-generational family legacies. In 2005, the gallery shifted to the broader concept of American legacies, focusing the invitational show on cultural phenomena relevant to America.

But this year that legacy also has a familial connection very dear to owner Alva Greenberg. The concept came to her as she stood on the Yankee Stadium field in July, representing her father—baseball legend and Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, one of the first Jews in the sport and still its biggest Jewish star ever—in a ceremony marking the issue of the "Slugger Series" first-class U.S. postage stamps. Why not an American Legacies show on baseball? Who's on First—the show title a reference to the classic Abbott and Costello comedy routine—is an invitational show that is a solid hit.

Hank Greenberg figures in two of the paintings by folk artist Malcah Zeldis. Her family moved to Detroit shortly after she was born in 1931. Her lively paintings, with their stark colors and naïve perspective, comment on the associations baseball has for her. In "My Brother and I," she depicts the two of them as children. While she clutches a Raggedy Ann doll, her brother wears a Tigers jersey and a Hank Greenberg baseball cap. Greenberg himself—a hero to Jews like Zeldis—is pictured in "Hank Greenberg." In the painting of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, a Cuban defector and former New York Yankee (now a Met, thank you very much), the pitcher is in the foreground. Behind him we see three Cuban soldiers and two desperate figures in a boat. Another painting is an homage to Jackie Robinson. Baseball is not merely a game in these paintings. It is part of the texture of everyday life and also central to the American story of immigration and assimilation.

Baseball's association with childhood is poignantly evoked in Gigi Liverant's "The Pick-up Game." Liverant's pastel on board work captures that summer memory feeling of playing baseball at twilight in a park. But the magical nature of those memories is accentuated by Liverant's joyful use of color. The field is crested with gold. The sky is a rich blue charged with zigzags of purple. The choice of twilight rather than sunny midday is telling, emphasizing the fleeting nature of youth.

They are children. And then they move on. Perhaps that explains the hint of melancholy that lingers over Ted Hendrickson's two black and white photographs. In one, torn netting surrounds a Little League batting cage. In the other, a spartan dugout is empty behind a chain-link fence. Devoid of restless kids, these scenes by Hendrickson seem to ache not just with the passing of summer, baseball's season, but with the evanescence of youth itself. (Or maybe it's just me: my only child started college this fall.)

But lest one surrender to that wistfulness, Hendrickson's photos hang right next to Gar Waterman's "The Slugger." Using found objects—primarily metal machine parts—Waterman has assembled a cyborg figure in the exaggerated stance of the (right-handed) home run hitter. Ass out. Left leg planted and straight. Right leg crooked at the knee. Torso leaning in to coil for a menacing swat. I've written about Waterman before. He has an uncanny ability to take materials like stone and metal and imbue them with fluid grace.

If Waterman's work personifies tense anticipation, Forrest R. Bailey's "Victory Celebration" taps the emotional chord of joy. In this oil painting, players leap upon each other in triumphant excitement, practically defining the term "exultation." If you are a fan of a team that has ever won a championship or pennant—or ever capped a comeback with a walk-off, two-out, two-strike grand slam when they are three runs down—this painting will bring back memories. For me, it immediately triggered associations with New York Mets reliever Jesse Orosco tossing his glove in the air after recording the last out of the 1986 World Series. The picture has an added dimension, though, one of brotherhood. The players celebrating are white, black and Asian.

Baseball and the question of race in America have long been entwined. This racial legacy is referenced in Stuart Paley's "Baseball" (acrylic and collage on wood). Using vintage photographs, tinting and ink, Paley imaginatively connects the past with the present. In the top left panel, Yankees star shortstop Derek Jeter is seen charging around the basepaths. The figure of what could be Jeter as a Little Leaguer leans into the panel with bat cocked on his shoulder. The panel to the right marks a pivotal moment for baseball: Jackie Robinson leaving the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers. With a bat on his shoulder and a duffel bag hanging off the barrel of the bat, Robinson is posed waving goodbye as he exits through a door with the Dodgers logo on it. In the foreground sits a somewhat forlorn-looking member of the Monarchs. Robinson's success in integrating the major leagues would also mark the demise of the Negro Leagues.

Famed Negro League star slugger Josh Gibson is in his catcher's crouch in Leslie Kuter's "Autobiographical Art History: Eakins Concert Singer, Queen Hatshepsut and Josh Gibson." Kuter makes what she calls her "soft paintings" with a hooked rug technique, pulling strands of torn wool through burlap. As indicated by the work's title, Gibson is flanked by an opera singer appropriated from a Thomas Eakins painting and the iconic image of the Egyptian queen. Stepping back from the piece, it looks almost mosaic in the coarse stippling of the colors.

Artist Beverly Floyd combined her obsession with birds and delight in architectural plans to come up with her whimsical contributions. Her five works all incorporate linoleum block prints, collage, beeswax and oil on panel. In each she has juxtaposed images of birds with the collaged diagram of a baseball stadium. For three of them, Floyd depicts the birds that provided the team names. Blue jays flank the image of the Toronto Skydome in "Players in the Sky." Collaged replicas of St. Louis' Busch Stadium encircle the crests of two cardinals in "Busch Players."

And then there are the boys playing with their baseball bats and balls. Jesse Good's "Safe at Home" is perhaps the opposite of a soft sculpture. Good has molded a pillow out of cement in such a way that it looks like the clean white baseball nestled in the center has made an impression in it. Barkley L. Hendricks' "Rumplestiltskin's Ball" also incorporates a pillow, albeit a lush real one. On top of it has set a baseball—painted with gold leaf, a la the color of Rapunzel's hair, and signed by the artist—in a Plexiglas cube. Hendricks' other offering is a punning political commentary. A big screw is twisted into the top of a baseball. The ball has been painted so the black areas look like oceans and the horsehide resembles continents. The cover of the ball is rent where the screw enters and also ripped on a line toward the bottom. Both tears ooze red; it looks like a bloodied world. The title riffs off the President's name and the term for the low minor leagues, where also-rans and never-weres languish: "Screwball Bush League Global Politics."

Finally, there is a series of exceptionally well-crafted carved baseball bats by Benjamin Blackburn. Blackburn, who worked on Wall Street at the time of the 9/11 attacks, began carving the bats as a personal form of healing. His day job was gone, at least temporarily. Some of his colleagues had died in the attacks. But in his sculpting of the bats, Blackburn found a connection to American mythology and hope. A personal favorite for me is "1955: In the Year of the Boar," which commemorates the only championship ever won by the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team beloved by my grandfather.

But, bringing this review back to its inspiration, there are three magnificent carved and lacquered bats memorializing Hank Greenberg. Among the imagery Blackburn includes is a baseball crossed by a lightning bolt (a tribute to Greenberg's prodigious power), the Star of David, Greenberg's image on Wheaties cereal boxes, the slugger following through on his iconic home run swing, Moses with the tablets bearing the 10 Commandments and a man in prayer at the Wailing Wall.

The show will be up until Jan. 12, 2007. Then it is going, going... Gone.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Poles apart, and together

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Ends Jan. 29, 2007.

I like it. Do you like it? I like it very much because it's good. Super.

An unhelpful review of Real Art Ways' POZA show of art by artists with roots directly or indirectly in Poland? No, an interpretation of dialogue from a video that is part of the show. "We Like It a Lot," a cheeky send-up of gallery hopping, was the first video by the Azorro Group. Each of the four group members has achieved individual recognition for their artistic endeavors. As Azorro, they comment on the contemporary art scene in Poland with wit rather than bile.

According to curator Marek Bartelik, the Polish word "poza" has a double meaning: "'posturing' or 'posing' (as one disguises his or her true nature for public display) and 'beyond' or 'trans.'" In this gallery exhibition, "Polishness" is treated not as an essential quality but as a point of departure. The 31 featured artists include both current residents of Poland and members of the Polish diaspora living in the United States, Brazil, Canada and France.

Bartelik kicks off the exhibit with a quote from Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, himself an exile from his home country for much of his adult life. Gombrowicz wrote in 1954:

I know very well what kind of Polish culture I wish to have in the future... the weakness of the contemporary Pole resides in his oneness (in Polish, his "jednoznacznosc") and also-his onesidedness; therefore all effort should be made to enrich him with the second polarity-to complement him with another Pole, who is completely-extremely-different.

Here also there is the play of double meaning, Pole versus pole and polarity. And Bartelik effectively demonstrates his point by curating a show that ranges widely both in its geographic reach and means of expression. Mixed and multimedia is the order of the day, and the main gallery exhibition is augmented by a film series, lectures and events at venues outside of Real Art Ways.

It is a perfect fit with Real Art Ways, which has a longstanding commitment both to challenging art and engagement with the community. Hartford and the nearby city of New Britain both have large Polish-American populations.

Ewa Harabacz's "Icon Station" is possibly the most distinctively "Eastern European" work in the show. A mixed media installation, it is a large, multi-panel work in the style of traditional religious iconography. But rather than rely on imagery of saints and other religious figures, it incorporates news images of war, refugees and dispossession. These are given the iconographic treatment. Backgrounds are painted with gold leaf; mothers holding their children have halos around their heads. The central image is of a soldier holding a naked child in his arms while he clutches a military rifle. His halo has a darker aspect: crosshairs in the center of his forehead. The imagery on the back parts of the right and left panels is different. Here Harabcz uses pictures of women most likely victims of breast cancer. Social violence is likened to the physical ravages of cancer: the metastasis of civil strife within the body politic.

Stepping into the room showing Krzysztof Wodiczko's video "Warsaw Projection," the first thing I heard was, in Polish, "This fucking city does not belong to us. It belongs to those who have hard fists and Mace. This fucking city does not belong to women." I was entering in the middle of a continuous loop video of Polish women's testimonies of social inequality and the violence to which they are vulnerable. Actually, it was a video of a video. Wodiczko had projected the testimonials on the pilasters of the Zacheta Gallery in downtown Warsaw in November, 2005. The video takes in not just the images and voices of the women but also some of the reactions of the crowds that gathered to watch. The speakers pose challenges to men, to the Polish President, to the courts that indulge their abusers. And they also challenge other women to raise their sons differently, to raise them to respect women. Their stories—and the direct way in which they tell them—command rapt attention.

In the main room, Dominic Lejman's video, "Skaters NY," is projected on one of the large walls. It is a negative image video of skaters shot from an overhead position. The white images glide over the slightly darkened wall, some gingerly, haltingly. Most skate in a big wheeling circle but some find their own road, cutting across the center or executing a graceful spin. Couples skate holding hands while others skate on their own. We see an adult bending over to talk to a pair of children, possibly instructing them on how to skate or proper ice etiquette. The video could be symbolic of the movement of people in life—standing apart, pairing up, going in circles and occasionally crossing over from one side to another.

Ursula von Rydingsvard's "Lace Medallion" is a large, exceptional sculptural work hewn from cedar boards. (It is so heavy that it had to be leaned against the wall rather than mounted.) Twenty-seven vertical board lengths form the main canvas. At about the midpoint and below, von Rydingsvard has cut into the boards, creating a landscape of canyons and crevices. Starting about a foot above the top, she added a sculpted wood relief that drops down into the piece like a necklace. Space is cut into the main body of boards to nest this necklace. It protrudes about one-and-a-half board's thickness. Again, the wood is cut so as to resemble a mountainous landscape, conjuring images of great forces of the earth thrusting to and through the surface. Where it is cut, much of the piece is overwritten by thick soft pencil lines, seeming to be instructions on how and where to cut it. I got the sense in looking at "Lace Medallion" that it represents both natural processes—using wood, a natural, but processed, material—and the presence of a guiding hand.

In its imposing but rough beauty it shares a wall with Jerzy Kubina's "Memory Window E" and "Memory Window D." These are large mixed media on silk works. They are delicate in comparison to "Lace Medallion." In "Memory Window E," the silk seems to obscure a background image, perhaps a building seen through a window. Up close, the work offers only the subtlest hints of pink and green color behind the silk. But go to the other side of the room—get some distance—and an underlying image becomes more visible. "Memory Window D" is a view of a five story building on a city street corner. Part of the front and most of the side is obscured. There are swirls and bubbles of color on the image akin to the decaying of old film or photographic stock. Like memory, the visible aspects have a presence and clarity despite the years, while the rest is cloaked in obscurity—part of the whole but beyond recovery.

A skyview photo of a park with three swimming pools was the apparent inspiration for "Water Objects" by Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga. In the picture, one pool is rectangular, one is circular and one is shaped like an irregular baseball diamond. These shapes are rendered as sculptural objects, two on the floor and the circular one on the wall. The artists then mounted Lambda prints—high-resolution laser prints—of water on the objects. The agitated water is a light-dappled blue, a natural abstraction.

Water plays a major role in Pawel Wojtasik's "The Aquarium," another video. Here the feeling is not one of summer play but of environmental crisis. Wojtasik juxtaposes scenes from three aquariums—where aquatic animals dart in seeming play but are not free—with outdoor vistas, often at twilight. A voiceover charts the destruction of the coral reefs and the progression of cancer in marine animals. The fate of the aquarium-bound animals mirrors our own possible fate, forced by our irresponsibility into ever more artificial environments, backed into an ecological corner.

Human beings' relationship to nature is likewise the subject of the three works in Gabriela Morawetz's "Sphere of Being" series. In all three, a photo of a male figure in dance poses is printed on an outer curved circle of glass. The glass is affixed over a background photo of swirling water like one might see in a little pool at the beach. Beach stones are glued to the background print. The light shining through the curved glass casts a diffuse image of the man on the background, conveying a sense of motion, and also of merger with the water and earth. In the transparency of the glass image, man interpenetrates nature and vice versa. The circle is a symbol of oneness, unity. But there is a darker note, also. Because the image of the man on the glass is not flush against the background print, man also casts a shadow over nature.

Frida Baranek's "Wald" is a large, sculptural work that includes a free-standing closet with doors open front and back. Inside, hanging on the bar usually reserved for clothes hangers, there is instead a coiled creation of latex tubing and bronze strapping. The metal closet is coated with rust, giving it a rough brushed abstract patina that complements the color of the rubber and bronze. The closet itself represents a kind of order and containment. The interplay of the tubing and metal, however, is tangled, disordered. Could this be a statement about using "closets" to contain unruly desire(s)?

The desire to open closets was the inspiration for Karolina Bregula's "Let Them See Us" series of photographs of same-sex couples holding hands, here exhibited in Real Art Ways' Real Room as part of the "Art in the Street" adjunct to POZA. The images were displayed on billboards in culturally conservative Poland. The billboards were taken down in response to intense opposition by Catholic groups. Here, in culturally liberal Connecticut, the local affiliate of Lamar Outdoor Advertising refused to display them. What is striking is just how normal the images are. Bregula has captured a basic humanity that only willful homophobia could find threatening.

Also in the Real Room are Wojciech Gilewicz's oil paintings based on urban wall graffiti, accompanied by photographs of the original walls. These are fascinating appropriations. Gilewicz has managed at the same time both to capture the furtive, gestural nature of graffiti and rendered a studied recreation of the surface texture of the walls, with layers of paint and grime and weathered posters.

For a show with its genesis in the concept of national identity, POZA is notable for its universality. It is a telling microcosm of transnational contemporary art, both in its thematic interests (with notions of memory, concepts of identity and the relationship of the artist to the social and/or natural world) and its multi-disciplinary approach.