Forget Them Not

S ome names are universally recognized. Who hasn’t heard of Helen Keller, Walt Whitman, Christopher Columbus or Thomas Edison? Others are of more dubious fame: Conchita Cintrón, Pierre Esprit Radisson, Jessica Dragonette, Alice Hamilton. All were famous enough at one time to be the subject of books that are part of the rich collection of New Haven’s Institute Library. Now on display in the library’s The Gallery Upstairs, these and other literary (and not-so-literary) treasures are juxtaposed with the work of local artists also exploring the lives of real people in Shelf/Life: History, Biography & Fame.

The show’s curator, Martha Willette Lewis, asks, “Who is visible in our collective consciousness, and who deserves our admiration and accolades?” After all, the former aren’t always the latter. And, as the relative obscurity of many of the exhibition’s subjects suggests, fame—defined by that “collective consciousness”—often has a shelf life. An additional question might be why some rise to prominence and stay there while others enjoy a brief arc or none at all.

sponsored by

Yale Center for British Art presents George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field

Shelf/Life’s brightest spotlight is trained on the role of art—whether visual or literary—in whether and how people are remembered. Take, for example, Cristina Sarno’s delightful abstract portraits of First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama, all painted in 2018. These women will, by definition, be remembered in American history, but not the way Sarno recalls them—lipstick smeared, jaw lines crooked, pearls mottled and askew. Yet each of them is instantly recognizable, their fame impossible to undermine. Sarno reminds us of the flaws behind what is normally seen only in airbrushed perfection.

The “shelf life” of the famous figures in Adger Cowans’s black and white photographs is holding up as well. But a century from now, will the names Malcolm X, Sun Ra, Dexter Gordon, Bill Bellamy and Mick Jagger still mean something to most people? Surely some will—or so we think. But the exhibition’s books documenting once-famous lives now all but forgotten suggest the urgency of these photographs documenting 20th-century political and cultural history. Adding to the theme of fame is Cowans himself, an acclaimed photographer with a long career in New York City and Hollywood. The opportunity to see his work is one compelling reason to see this show.

Sarno and Cowans are documenting the lives of the decidedly famous. But what of art that preserves the memory of those who aren’t famous in the “collective consciousness” but are nevertheless important to us? Memory Tags (2001) is Jean Scott’s project to remember her own mother. “In 2001, my mother had been dead for 25 years,” Scott writes in an artist statement. “I was alarmed at how difficult it was for me to conjure a mental picture of her likeness, and anxious about the idea that her memory would not outlive me.” Having lost photographs of her mother while moving from one place to another, Scott set out to create her own version of Victorian mourning jewelry, which often used the hair of the deceased. Instead, she used hairs clipped from her mother’s mouton coat and inserted them, along with drawings and other media, between two small squares of transparent acrylic, creating “memory tags” strung on lanyards. Dozens of them hang like ornaments on the gallery’s stairway wall. Scott concludes, “She was famous in the way that all mothers are famous to their children.”

The titles of some of the books in the exhibition remind us of the fleeting nature of memory, whether public or personal: They Had Their Hour by Marquis James or The “Also Rans”: Men Who Missed the Presidency by Don C. Seitz. But there’s also a suggestion that what seems to be lost can sometimes be made new again. Thomas Mezzanotte’s series of tintypes (2014-2017) resurrects a 19th-century photographic process to capture 21st-century subjects. And, in perhaps the most intriguing pieces of the show, Allan Rubin has cut, sculpted, screwed together and painted different sized metal cans, recycling them into playful yet lifelike busts of the artists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Elizabeth Catlett. A brief artist’s statement notes that Rubin’s “marks echo the style of the artists depicted,” a memorializing move that’s most noticeable in the short, broad brush strokes on Cannon—Elizabeth Catlett (2018), echoing the look of a midcentury woodcut. In fact, the piece is a representation of Catlett’s iconic linoleum cut print Sharecropper (1952).

Ultimately, the artistic works in Shelf/Life reach past the lines drawn by the exhibition’s theme to offer more to the observer who takes the time to linger. The artists themselves become the subjects as the question of fame and “shelf life” is turned over and examined. A binder of their biographies and statements located at the top of the gallery stairs offers an opportunity to ponder these questions further.

Then there’s the library itself. The show was both “inspired by and illuminates” the library’s biography section, among its largest and most current, comprising more than 2,000 titles, according to executive director Valerie Garlick. Though signs warn visitors not to handle the books in the exhibition, an Institute Library membership will allow you, after the show ends on December 29, to check them out yourself so you can read about “The World’s Greatest Matadora,” Conchita Cintrón, in Goddess of the Bullring (1960); “The Deeds and Deviltry of Pierre Esprit Radisson” in King of the Fur Traders (1940); “The Odyssey of an American Artist” in the Jessica Dragonette biography Faith Is a Song (1951); or, for readers with a more scholarly bent, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1942), the autobiography of early 20th-century physician Alice Hamilton, an expert in occupational health and industrial toxicology.

If you do, you’ll be ensuring that their shelf life hasn’t yet run its course.

Shelf/Life: History, Biography & Fame
Institute Library – 847 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 11am-2pm through December 29
(203) 562-4045
www.institutelibrary.org/…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is 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.

Leave a Reply