No Place Like Home

T all, slender wooden placards lean against the walls of the Yale University Art Gallery as if left there for a moment, about to be moved. They emphasize the temporary status of not just an exhibit but also the artists represented there.

Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope brings together more than 40 artists from three centuries and four continents who all have one thing in common: they either chose or were forced to leave their homelands. The exhibit’s stated aim is “to show how…the experience of exile is universal,” but Artists in Exile also demonstrates the extraordinary range of those who made their art far from home, often in difficult or outright oppressive circumstances.

Chinese artist Mu Xin created his series of five small paintings in ink and gouache while under house arrest in 1977. The nearly monochromatic landscapes are stormy, troubled scenes of crooked trees and roiling clouds. Created “by smearing, then [refining] with a brush,” the object label explains, Xin’s images are at once haunting and soothing.

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Mohamad Hafez struggles under a different sort of confinement. He first came to the United States as a student. “[U]nable to return to his native Syria, his art became a way to cope with his homesickness and nostalgia,” Yale’s curators report. While Xin’s landscapes are deceptively quiet, Hafez’s striking sculpture Baggage Series #4 demands attention. Rising from an open suitcase like a page out of a child’s pop-up book is a detailed replica of a bombed-out concrete building, its metal beams exposed, its furniture covered in ash. Tiny plants grow out of the wreckage.

Xin’s and Hafez’s works appear in the segment of the exhibit dedicated to the theme of Identity. Three other thematic sections—Home and Mobility; Nostalgia; and Transfer and Adjustment—host equally compelling pieces.

Mona Hatoum’s installation Nature morte aux grenades is a play on a Matisse painting of fruit on a table, which Hatoum—a Palestinian born in Lebanon and now living in the United Kingdom—has reimagined as colorful crystal globes on an institutional steel table. They’re so pretty you might be tempted to touch them, until you notice their lethal shape.

Likewise, George Grosz’s 1939 watercolor The American Scene seems humorous at first, with its cartoonish figures large in the frame: a mustached man in Yale vest and white knickers, a blonde woman in a pink dress, an old businessman with a handkerchief, a boy eating candy on a stick. But gray, smoke-like shadows outline each figure. Each visage is pinched. Literally marginalized, cut off by the edge of the painting, an old woman sells flowers from a basket. The other figures, meanwhile, walk past her with such purpose that it seems they might barge off the paper and trample the viewer. Perhaps this is how Grosz himself—a German exile “targeted by the Nazis”—felt in his adopted American home.

Big names can be found here—Gauguin, Duchamp, Dali and others—but it’s the viewer’s discovery of the lesser-known that gives this exhibit both depth and breadth. There’s much more to contemplate: Elizabeth Catlett’s simple, yet powerful linocut prints—tightly framed portraits of dignity and strength; Kurt Schwitters’s mixed media work Merz Picture with Rainbow, whose shadows may be painted or real; Jacques-Louis David’s realistic 19th-century portraits, so surprising in this otherwise mostly contemporary show, and yet very much the work of an exile, a French Revolutionary who was banished from France after power shifted.

Exile, one placard notes, “complicates and disrupts the evolution of an artist’s identity.” Cuban refugee Abelardo Morell’s 1991 photograph Camera Obscura: Houses Across the Street in Our Living Room speaks directly to that upending. The scene in Morell’s Massachusetts living room could be ordinary: a chair, a lamp, a plant in front of double pocket doors. But projected on them by a camera obscura—“a device that projects inverted images of the outside world onto the wall of a darkened box or space”—is the upside-down, ghostly image of the houses and trees across the street. The neighbors’ peaked roofs point downward like funnels about to spill something onto the artist’s living room floor.

It’s impossible to feel right-side up like this, the image seems to say. It’s impossible to feel at home.

Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm
(203) 432-0601
www.artgallery.yale.edu/…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image #1 features Mona Hatoum’s Nature morte aux grenades. Image #2 features ink and gouache paintings by Mu Xin. Image #3 features George Grosz’s watercolor painting The American Scene.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is The Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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