Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Interview with Helen Kauder

Helen Kauder is leaving Artspace after ten years at the helm. But Artspace is not leaving the corner of Crown and Orange streets. I spoke with Kauder last Wednesday at Artspace.

Amid the uncertainty—which has its creative possibilities—Kauder informed me of a point of continuity.

"Literally, earlier this afternoon, we put ink down on a three-year extension of our lease," she said. "The city will be helping us with it and we will be turning to the community for help with it because it will require a bigger financial commitment from Artspace."

Kauder is leaving to become Deputy Director of the respected Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, where she will officially start in the middle of July. She will be responsible for the day to day running of the contemporary art haven. Kauder was attracted to the Aldrich by her respect for the leadership and vision of museum director Harry Philbrick. It helped, also, that the Aldrich is a well-endowed art institution. While money always needs to be raised, Kauder noted that "there is enough that comes in every year that there is some assurance that the organization will be there and be able to plan far in advance."

The decade-long strain of financing Artspace played a large role in Kauder's decision to move on.

"Raising funds for ten years is hard and because we've grown, it means more mouths to feed. It was getting daunting," Kauder said. "Everybody around here is underpaid, they've put in a number of years, they need raises. How are we going to do that?

"I felt for the first time this year that I'm seeing some clouds on the horizon in terms of corporate sponsors. We've had some cutbacks at a time when we're growing. We're doing more and offering more," she said. "But we're finding the places we're turning to are not growing with us and, in fact, are shrinking."

Kauder offered a few reasons for the retrenchment: that the organization, having established itself, might be taken for granted; that some corporate funders might feel it's somebody else "whose turn it is to help;" that the pending move by Anthem Blue Cross and other corporate belt-tightening locally may mean less corporate support available for a range of community needs.

It particularly impacts Artspace because their funding model depends heavily on corporate and foundation support.

"Because artists tend to be poor, we don't have the built-in source of individual contributors that other non-profits have," said Kauder. But, she added, the good news/bad news aspect of the situation was that "we get small amounts from many places. If someone decides to pull back, it's not a life or death situation. It just makes it harder."

Kauder, and those she has worked with, have achieved a lot over the past ten years. When she took over, Artspace had no home. Before settling into the present location, Artspace took up itinerant residence in a succession of storefronts. The development of the Chamberlain Building space-and Kauder's success in persuading various stakeholders to help make it happen-is a signal achievement.

She recalled the visit of a funder from a New York foundation. "When they saw the space, their jaws dropped. To have this kind of visibility for artists in downtown—there is no other entity in Connecticut that can offer this," Kauder said.

Among the other projects and events Kauder recalled with enthusiasm were the 5th year of Open Studios (this year will be the 10th) at the Pirelli Building and the Factory Direct residencies. The 5th City-Wide Open Studios was, Kauder said, the first time that National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, grant money was secured to fund local artist projects through Artspace. CWOS reached a new level of audience that year. According to Kauder, someone remarked to her at the time that there were "as many cars parked around the Pirelli Building as at a football game."

For Factory Direct, also funded by the NEA, 13 artists were in residency at various venerable New Haven manufacturers. They created works using the materials, technology and history of the companies and through the interaction with the employees.

"It really showed a spirit of innovation and how, in the vein of opening doors we didn't even know existed, we could find new ways to make art happen," said Kauder.

She similarly mentioned the Backpack Project. Transparent backpacks—a symbol of a security-obsessed society—were distributed to be used as vessels to hold art. The community was invited to participate.

"The audience becomes the artist," Kauder said of the project. "People come together and feel connected as a community through artistic endeavors."

Her chief regret was not seeing plans for artist live/work housing in the downtown district come to fruition.

Kauder credited the community of artists for the successes Artspace has enjoyed over the past decade. The artists who have participated in CWOS. The artists who took up the challenge of producing site-specific works. In a number of cases, artists have turned these opportunities into stepping-stones, a way to get their work known more widely, and into venues such as Real Art Ways in Hartford, the Aldrich, and out of state spaces.

"When I think of Artspace's role, it's that we provided a platform. But artists have been willing to come and be on that platform," Kauder explained. And in that relationship, the "platform has been strengthened."

Kauder noted that if Artspace's residency in the Ninth Square were to be left solely to market forces, the organzation would be forced out.

"I hope the city will see that it needs to carve out that room. I hope there is forward thinking and the recognition that the arts tend to require some subsidies," Kauder said. "Artists will never be the top best use in pure economic terms. On the other hand, I think we generate a lot of visitation, a lot of traffic. A lot of people know New Haven, and this area, because of the large number of artists. So much of it is improved image, perception—Ninth Square as being lively, vibrant, of this area as being a great place for artists."

Notwithstanding the financial clouds, Kauder is optimistic for Artspace's future. The extension of the lease provides some breathing room for an incoming director. The board has a new chairman, Rob Narracci. Kauder noted the upside of the fact that talented curator Denise Markonish is leaving at the same time: "It gives the succeeding leadership wide latitude to build their team, a wonderfully clean slate on which to write the next chapter."

There is a year of projects "already cooking," according to Kauder, and they are putting together a team of volunteers-artists and board members-to plan for this fall's CWOS 10th anniversary. Artspace is conducting a national search for a new director, as well as advertising locally.

"I think back to when I got here. Some people then were ready to write Artspace off," Kauder told me. "There was the opportunity for new ideas and things that hadn't been done before.

"There are challenges here but if the past is any guide, somebody with fresh ideas will see possibilities where the current crew didn't, and open doors we didn't know existed," Kauder said. "It's always the possibility with change."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Marsden Hartley film to have CT debut in New Britain

New Britain Museum of American Art
56 Lexington St., New Britain, (860) 229-0257
Film screening: Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy
Mar. 29, 2007, 5 p.m.

Filmmaker and Connecticut resident Michael Maglaras, in the role of American modernist painter Marsden Hartley, sits in a reconstruction of Hartley's studio in Corea, Maine. Speaking directly to the camera, Maglaras is Hartley, reciting from the painter and poet's prose poem Cleophas and His Own. A narrative of great joy and fulfillment has turned dark. Death has shattered Hartley's idyllic residence with a Nova Scotian family in a remote fishing village.

"I learned for the first time that grief could take on an epic character," declares Maglaras/Hartley.

Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine in 1877 and died in Ellsworth, Maine in 1943. He was a brilliant colorist who absorbed the successive influences of the Impressionist Cezanne, Picasso, Native American art, the German Expressionists. His creative efforts extended to experimental prose and poetry.

The screenplay of Maglaras' adaptation of Cleophas and His Own is taken verbatim from Hartley's text of the same name. It tells the story of his transformative experience with the Francis Mason family on East Point Island in Nova Scotia. Hartley had gone up to Canada in the summer of 1935 in search of a friend, and to paint and write. He didn't locate his friend but made the acquaintance of the Mason family.

At first merely a boarder with the family—father Francis Mason, his wife Martha, their sons Alty and Donny and their daughters Alice and Ruby—Hartley was embraced with an unconditional affection he had not thereto experienced. Hartley spent that summer with the Masons and returned the next year. As well as being accepted into their household, Hartley fell in love with the robust and virile eldest son, Alty, a desire that, according to Hartley's writings, was reciprocated.

Boarding with the Masons, Hartley—channeled by Maglaras—says, "was to prove the richest experience of my life, the richest in ways that I never would have asked or believed."

Hartley had begun the text of Cleophas and His Own late in the summer of 1936, a paean to the deep-rooted and loving virtues of the family. The tragic turn came on Sept. 19, 1936. With a great hurricane sweeping through the region, Alty, Donny and their cousin Allen foolishly tried to return to their island home from the mainland in a small unstable punt. They drowned. Their bodies were discovered days later.

The sea, source of life and sustenance, was also a dangerous place. Reading from Hartley's text late in the film, after the funerals for Alty and Allen (fictionalized in Hartley's story as Adelard and Allain; Donny is renamed Etienne and father Francis is the Cleophas of the title), Maglaras describes sitting down to eat shortly after Donny's mutilated body has been recovered. "We were shaken, three times shaken, and when the sea was so calm and gentle next day, all I could think to say was—'How could you—how could you?'"

The cinematic approach taken by first time filmmaker Maglaras is spare but effective. In his role as Hartley, Maglaras follows in the tradition of one-person shows such as Hal Holbrook's impersonation of Mark Twain. His scenes are intercut with vignettes of the family, with voiceovers by Maglaras. In addition, 24 of Hartley's paintings from his post-Nova Scotian period—including ones of members of the Mason family—are incorporated into the film, often cross-dissolved with comparable filmed images of the actors. The paintings were shot in color; the rich cinematography by Geoffrey Leighton is in black and white. The entire movie, with the exception of the paintings, was shot in Maine. Through Leighton's lens, we see and understand Hartley's attraction to both the severe virtues of the Nova Scotia locale and the rustic—or, as Hartley puts it, "archaic"—sturdiness of the Mason clan.

Although told wholly from Hartley's perspective, this isn't a movie about the artist, per se. There is no exposition about his creative process, or even about how his relationship with the Masons impacted that creative process. Rather, it is a narrative about rich human relationships sundered by the capricious will of Nature.

Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy gets its first Connecticut screening on Thursday, Mar. 29, at 5 p.m. at the New Britain Museum of American Art. A discussion with director/actor Michael Maglaras will follow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A storm surge of paint

Yale Center for British Art
1080 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-2800
Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1992—2007
Feb. 1—Apr. 1, 2007

The first thing I notice in the Howard Hodgkin show at the Yale Center for British Art is that the normal image area is not enough to contain Hodgkin's desire to apply paint. These lush works extend outward, overwhelming the frames, annexing the frames into the compositions.

Like a musicians with a signature bag of riffs and licks, Hodgkin approaches the wood—because these are all works on wood, not canvas—with a palette of personal painterly strategies. Predominant is the thick, slashing arc. You can see this in "Spring Rain," "First Light," "Autumn Foliage," "Falling Down" and more.

Then there is a sort of stippling effect writ large, as though he had taken big cotton balls of paint and patted them on the surface. For examples, check out "Clarendon Road," "Flowerpiece," along the frame of "Moonlight" and in select areas of "Torso." In "A Visit to Paul and Bernard," this stippling imagery becomes elongated as if the same effect was caught in a photographic blur. A hail of color like Impressionism on steroids.

In the huge "Autumn," background slaps of black, green, red and blue are the setting for a flurry of orange and brown dabs of paint, leaves from the trees.

Most of these paintings are bold and loud, calling attention to themselves. But there are quieter works, too. "Walking on Water," a smaller painting, uses white paint along the frame to contain a soft mustard yellow at the bottom and a rusty red sky. The raw texture of the wood in this painting flavors the image.

For "Mud," Hodgkin actually lets the weathered natural face of his wood show through unadorned, rather than slathering it with paint. He does enclose it within a rectangle of dark olive green. More than many of the other works, this is almost recognizably a landscape. It is completed with a land mass of black.

But these paintings are the exception. More typical are the works with dayglo orange or almost impenetrable blues or luminous greens. In the beautiful "Old Books," the frame is lit with orange. Almost glowing, it sweetly highlights the fluid horizontal bands of blue-green, grays and black in the textures of the brushstrokes. I can see the well-thumbed pages of the books, telling a rich and layered story in the gestural intricacies of the painted line.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Department of Good News/Bad News

In this case, the news is good for Artspace Executive Director Helen Kauder and Artspace curator Denise Markonish. Kauder—who oversaw the redevelopment of the Chamberlain Building as Artspace's home and, along with Marianne Bernstein and Linn Meyers, founded City-Wide Open Studios—will become the Deputy Director of the prestigious Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT. Markonish has proven herself a gifted curator, able to organize exhibits that are intellectually stimulating as well as visually exciting. She will become the new curator at MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The news is bad for those of us who value the role that Artspace has played in the New Haven art community. Kauder and Markonish, who will both stay on into July, will be tough to replace. I hope to speak with both of them and report more in the coming weeks.

Art for a change

Central Connecticut State University: Samuel S. T. Chen Fine Arts Center
1615 Stanley St., New Britain, (860) 832-2633
Painting with Fire: Agitprop Murals from Around the World
Feb. 8—Mar. 10, 2007

Curated by Central Connecticut State University associate professor of art Mike Alewitz, Painting With Fire: Agitprop Murals from Around the World is a small but stimulating sampling of art in the service of politics. These works build on a tradition that first found mass expression in the heady early days of the Russian Revolution. This display of contemporary agitprop—for agitation and propaganda—is meant to spark social change around issues of imperialism, war, corporate domination, sexism and racism.

Much of the exhibit consists of photos and digital prints of artworks, necessitated by the fact that many of them have been painted on buildings that could neither be moved nor fit in this gallery. There is an especially striking image of a mural painting "When Women Pursue Justice," painted by Artmakers, Inc. On the wall of a four-story building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, it depicts 90 women who led or participated in U.S. social change movements over the past 150 years.

The 3,300 square foot Artmakers project was executed by nearly 50 women—13 professional artists, five interns and 30 volunteers. It has a lively background featuring silhouettes of demonstrators in multiple shades of red. The background is overlaid with painted images of such notable activists as anarchist Emma Goldman, Catholic Worker pacifist Dorothy Day, farmworkers union leader Dolores Huerta and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, in whose former district the mural is sited. The imagery is eye-catching and colorful. That it's painted on the mottled concrete wall of an old urban building makes it that more striking.

These creations are works of the moment, intended for display in the streets or during mass protest actions. An example is David Solnit's "mural flip book" on the World Trade Organization. Solnit was a key organizer of the Nov., 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Painted on a big piece of canvas, the top page reads "Whose Trade Organization?" The center image shows the earth as viewed from outer space, while in the foreground an archer fires arrows into a sign reading "World for Sale." Other pages use simplified imagery to critique a global order based on war, corporate governance and the privatization of life's necessities.

This pedagogical intent is especially notable in the works of the Beehive Design Collective. Based in an old Grange Hall in eastern Maine, the collective creates intricately designed, richly sourced allegorical posters about issues such as biotechnology and corporate globalization. They use these images—printed as posters or on giant rolls of fabric—as educational materials in schools, before activist groups and at demonstrations.

On their own, posters such as "Plan Colombia" are deft works of almost psychedelic intensity, packed with obscure but compelling drawings of insects, mammals, plants and mechanized mutants. Explicated by one of the "bees" through a narrative picture-lecture, they become a fascinating hybrid of visual poetry and radical socioeconomics.

Doug Minkler creates poster art with garishly colored cartoon-like graphics. These broadsides excoriate homophobia, imperialism, war, arms sales and police brutality. In a note on the wall, Minkler writes that the posters that have drawn the most contention have been ones calling for cutting off aid to Israel in protest of the occupation of Palestinian territories.

The Israeli occupation is the subject of John Pitman Weber's "Bulldozer Triptych," two panels of which are exhibited here. These acrylic paint and acrylic pen works on large canvas were done for Piece Process 3, a joint Palestinian and Jewish art group. The stark designs counterpose the looming brutal image of the Caterpillar bulldozer, used in the demolition of Israeli homes, with the supplicating form of a woman standing in its path. On the bottom of each panel a hand holds a dove, a symbol of peace. In the left panel a sketched image shows a woman holding her head in grief. In the panel on the right, a repeated image depicts hands embroidering a piece of cloth.

The display of work by CCSU faculty member Cora Marshall differs from much of the other art exhibited. Marshall documents the "Day of Prayerful Protest," which occurred on Sun., Feb. 27, 2000. The protest occurred two days after a jury acquitted four white New York City police officers who killed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets.

Over 100 women assembled in a circle, dressed in black, faces covered by black veils. Each held a wallet-size picture of Diallo. Written on the back side of the photo:
Women in Mourning & Outrage
We stand in solidarity
with Mrs. Diallo
and all who have
lost children to
the brutality of
the police

Together, the women held up the photo of the slain man and counted to 41. Marshall documents the protest with nine powerful photographic images of mourning and determination.


On the Saturday afternoon I visit, two CCSU students are at work in a room off the gallery on some agitprop of their own. Chris Hutchinson is a 24-year-old junior in the CCSU art program. Erin Kenney is a graduate student in the mental health program, with an undergraduate art degree. They are painting large banners for an upcoming march on the Pentagon in protest of the Iraq War.

Hutchinson says that being in Alewitz's painting classes—as well as reading on his own—politicized him. He recently painted a banner for "Free the Danbury 11," a campaign on behalf of undocumented workers hauled in by the Feds as part of a national campaign of repression. The banner, he says, has been used at a couple of forums and protests. Hutchinson was also among a group of CCSU students who painted a series of placards for the mammoth Feb. 15, 2003 pre-war antiwar demonstration in New York City.

The banners are intended, says Hutchinson, both to buck up the spirits of activists as well as catch the attention of the wider public.

"When we do these things we hold them high in the air so they can be caught on TV and be visible," he says. He gestures to one reading "No War in Iran." "If people see a banner that says 'No War in Iran,' it might spark conversation" among people inside and outside the movement who may not be contemplating the potential for such a conflict.

"I think this is a great exhibit, and needed, too. Most times art is kept in the galleries and away from the public. This is art that is meant for the streets, to be utilized," says Hutchinson. It is not art meant to make thousands of dollars. "What makes it important and vital is that it shows the tradition is still alive and functioning in this country."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Seven Up

City Gallery
994 State St., New Haven, (203) 782-2489
Some Of Us

There is an understandable tendency to try and corral group shows within the confines of overarching themes. Sometimes this is just a title—for example, the ALL Gallery's recent show, Loud. A theme or title can become a prism through which to consider disparate works. I confess to occasionally getting hung up on show titles: Does this work or that resonate reasonably within a given curatorial construct?

For this recently closed (Feb. 25) show by seven members of the State Street-situated City Gallery, participants chose the generic monicker Some Of Us. Which is ironic because it was one of the most coherent group exhibits I've seen in quite a while.

The common threads connecting the works of these seven women are delight in abstraction, texture, materials and surface. Everyone has her own artistic voice. But their presence together, across different media, was mutually reinforcing.

So it was that the thick orange red surface of Caroline Chandler's oil painting "Pond Reflections" gestured toward the bursts of red and orange that grip the charred and splintered wooden boards of Nancy Eisenfeld's "Smolder."

"Smolder" takes the concept of painting on board to a whole new level. This piece would be eye-catching if it was just a sculptural work composed of old wood. But Eisenfeld treated her assemblage of wood scrap as a canvas. With dabs of burnt orange, flares of scarlet, touches of gold and white and metallic blue on the singed boards, Eisenfeld conjured the fiery energy, the idea of fire as process.

Chandler's "Pond Reflections," on the other hand, evoked thoughts of both surface and depth. The orange glowed from the center out, although the paint surface was dull, not shiny. Around the edges, Chandler had dug into the paint surface, hints of foliage. In "Standing on Fishes," her painting to the left of "Pond Reflections," the scratches had a piscine shape. This work was golden in the center, slowly changing color to dark browns and oranges around the edges. It was like looking into waters with the sun overhead.

In this continuing vein of complementarity, Chandler's signature cuts into the surface of her works found an echo in the scrawls and phantom cursive particular to Jane Harris' paintings and monotypes. Harris trades in layers of imagery. In her oils, hints of darker forms lurked beneath encrustations of white pigment.

As in the previous City Gallery show, Borders and Intersections, Sheila Kaczmarek displayed two very different types of works. One set featured mixed media on panels. Ghostly photos collaged and overpainted with paint and encaustic. These were like landscapes seen through billows of earth tone mists. Then there were her three ceramic and mixed media works. In appearance, they straddled the line between landscape and life form. Titles like "Yellow Reefer" and "Blue Reefer" suggested coral reefs. Squat protuberances sprouted out of a base. Curlicues of wire and plastic tubing extended from the protuberances of "Yellow Reefer." Guitar strings leapt out of sponges stuffed into nooks of "Hungry Reefer."

Along with the natural forms sculpted by Kaczmarek, the show included a couple of mixed media pieces by Meg Bloom that suggested natural forms and/or processes. "Memory Lingers," a long work that hung from the ceiling, was composed of sheer fabric, wax and elaborately frayed green and blue threads. The edges of the fabric were burnt. It looked like a wedding gown gone to seed, the threads lacing through it like vine tendrils. Clots of wax and tears in the fabric were reminiscent of the predations of ravenous moths. "Traces," which hung in the front window, consisted of singed sheer fabric and twigs. It sagged like a distended derelict sack, a nest cobbled together by the mutant offspring of a bird and a gypsy moth.

In Bloom's mixed media works "Surfacing 1" and "Surfacing 2," pastels, wax and pigment were employed to produce an exciting liquid smear of color and texture.

On the facing wall were Liz Pagano's mixed media pieces, also flush with fluid imagery using colors and printing on layers of glass. There were lots of deep reds and yellows. "Moon Over Miami" featured webs of lines, enlarged fingerprint whorls and washes and spotting resembling blood. Like looking at enlargements of sanguineous microscope slides, it was a dive into a world both frightening and beautiful.