Taking It Public

Taking It Public

A rt is easily had in New Haven. Just this week, at the Ideat Village festival temporary headquarters at 118 Court Street, there was an un-juried, free-for-all overflow of a gallery show featuring over six dozen area artists. Some of these painters, sculptors or mixed-media mavens are the sort who’d just as soon thrust the art into your hands as attempt to sell it to you through a gallery or agent. They are provocateurs, seeking a sharp and instant reaction.

New Haven is studded with arresting artworks that leap out at you from unexpected quarters. This is a city that supports and embraces all manner of public art. There have been city-sponsored programs to place large metal sculptures in parks and plazas, or to beautify new buildings by encouraging the developers to set aside one percent of the construction costs to commission an archway or other piece of public art to augment the architecture.

Then there are the hit-and-run projects, gobs of them, turning the downtown streets into a makeshift gallery. Scarcely a year goes by without a Yale Art & Architecture student using the phone poles around York Street for a public art project of some kind, creating false or funny posters that make you stop, think and reflect. There are impromptu chalk murals on the streets at block parties. There are the bumper-sticker-like mottos and messages that many cities get hit with—from the classic “Andre the Giant has a posse” stickers created in the late 1980s by Shepard Fairey (later to gain renown for his Barack Obama “Hope” posters) to homegrown examples such as “New Haven is the Paris of the 1990s,” a slogan created to promote a local art show. That hopeful message hung around for years.

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The walls of the building at the corner of Water Street and Olive streets, near High School in the Community, burst with graffiti murals. Before Ninth Square was a restaurant mecca, some of its abandoned storefronts were brightened with brash decorations.  When the Yale School of Art & Architecture, with its famous (to some, infamous) corduroy-style Brutalist design, was touched up by university renovators  a few years ago, they found that a local wire sculptor had done his own touch-up years earlier—a pod-like artwork that had been attached to one of the building’s towers and had resided there for over a decade.

That sculpture, once discovered by the authorities, was unceremoniously discarded. But there are many examples of Yale and other institutions happily looking the other way when local art gets installed, erected or sprayed in public areas. Some Yale sculptures are frequently redone by students, dressed up or enhanced with signage to promote campus events. Claes Oldenburg’s famous “Lipstick”—a giant orange lipstick tube attached to the body of a military tank—was the result of a loose network of Yalies known as the Colossal Keepsake Corporation of Connecticut, then thrust upon an unsuspecting campus in 1969, where it became a focal point for anti-war protests. Though polarizing, the sculpture—officially titled “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” was accepted and embraced by the university, which moved it from its original Beinecke Plaza location to a courtyard in Morse College in the mid-1970s.

In the early 2000s there was a public-art epidemic of stencil art downtown. No one was immune. The author of this article was one of the subjects; the photo of me which graced a weekly New Haven Advocate column I wrote was turned into a basic black-and-white image and spraypainted on walls, sidewalks and lampposts throughout town. The creative culprit was never identified, and the artwork took on a life of its own. Those who didn’t connect the image to myself, or to the paper, thought it was a picture of Harpo Marx, or some lighthearted take on the Big Brother concept from the novel 1984. Other stenciled graffiti of that era include a cartoon of a fat, top-hatted bureaucrat blanching at an anarchist emblem, over the legend “Your days of plenty are numbered” (a saying popularized by the 2004 German film The Edukators).

These days, what are we to make of the provocation “Do Not Go Gentle On NPR” which graces the upper story of a building on Whitney Avenue across from the beginning of the Audubon street arts district? The phrase has been distorted and altered with other graffiti interpolations and has quickly lost its luster. That is the danger of public art offerings—no curators to protect and preserve them.

Mystery surrounds a gigantic public-art image which popped up overnight at the corner of Park and Crown streets over a year and a half ago and has remained there, untouched and widely revered, ever since. It’s a sharply-etched portrait of Anne Frank which covers an entire back wall of Partners Café, with the upbeat dictum “Believe in People” gently filling the upper right corner of the mural. To create the piece, the entire wall of the building was first painted white. An article in the Yale Daily News identifies “Believe in People” as the pseudonym of the otherwise unknown artist, as well as the obvious title of a work involving the world-famous icon of peace and hope Anne Frank. Other examples of “Believe in People”’s work have turned up around town, including at such Yale institutions as Mory’s restaurant and the Skull & Bones society building.

How nice for New Haven to have fostered its own tradition of inspiring, uplifting street art. For a city like ours with such a large transient population of students and short-term residents, you’d think “Kilroy was Here” would be enough. Yet we’ve created connections, expanding the community through inadvertent and adventurous art.

Written by Christopher Arnott.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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