Messengers

“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed back in 1964. It’s a useful line to carry into Harmonious Discord, the latest exhibition at Whitney Center’s Perspectives gallery in Hamden, curated by Debbie Hesse and Maxim Schmidt of the Ely Center of Contemporary Art. The show’s five artists all take up different media that, as McLuhan would suggest, are inseparable from the content of their work. Viewed together, that message is amplified, creating a lively interplay among disparate works.

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Lisa Miller at Trinity Church on the Green

The marriage of media and message is most evident in the work of Marsha Borden, whose material of choice is the plastic bag. In her Plastic Planet series, the horizontal weave of a single color—blue newspaper sleeves, yellow or gray shopping bags—creates a flaglike field, in each case punctuated by a single emblem, a lopsided earth made of tightly braided bags. The message is undeniable: We are a society made of, even patriotic about, plastic. It’s tempting to give ourselves a little pat on the back, knowing that Borden’s medium is becoming a precious commodity, to be phased out statewide by 2021 and already banned in Hamden. But the subtitles of Borden’s work remind us of so much work still to be done: Lost at Sea, Feel the Heat, Scorched.

Phyllis Crowley’s impressionistic photographs hang in a nearby corner seating area, beginning with the most enigmatic. Are we looking through a dirty window? A glaze of rain? And what is that stripe of light? By the time we reach Gritty City, we can see well enough what’s behind the scrim of grime. There’s blue sky, sunlight on the face of a building. Vehicles are parked in a driveway. But now the obscuring film seems less to be on a window or the camera’s lens and more on the emulsion of the print itself, a sticky substance which is peeled away here and there to give us jagged little peeks at the still-blurry subjects behind. Except what’s behind isn’t so much the subject, we now understand. It’s the “grit” itself. The effect is both to obscure and to invite us closer as we strain to see.

This same effect in Crowley’s panoramic triptych Crossing is stunning. Here the obscuring element is more familiar—melting ice and snow smearing down a windshield. In the large central panel, a street scene bleeds through; in two smaller side panels of differing widths, bright pink splotches that could be taillights and a glossy red that could be a traffic signal are refracted by the glistening, faceted slush. The texture of these prints almost gives them melting motion, and their slick, silvery sparkle illuminates the beauty in the everyday.

Alan Neider’s Paint + Jewelry series brings a playful, even humorous ingredient to Harmonious Discord. His series title purports to name his media, but Neider’s multimedia works are built of paper, thread, newsprint, probably some glue and some kind of stiff, padded material. While there’s certainly “paint” involved, the “jewelry” is made of paper and padding onto which Neider has drawn multi-faceted stones and gilded links in intricate detail. What makes these six pieces so compelling is their layers. In Paint + Jewelry #1, part of a woman’s smiling face, perhaps from a magazine photograph, peeks from behind the chunky chain of an emerald necklace cut from that stiff padding. Its pendant hangs beside a gray painted bulge, perhaps suggesting a woman’s breast. The shape of the necklace is loosely echoed by another cutout, something like a pattern for the necklace itself, though its shape is distinctly different, and it’s coated with a hastily painted green-on-green veneer. Both necklace and “pattern” are machine-sewn to several layers of paper backing, rough-edged and askew. The materials progress from crude background to polished foreground, as if to suggest the process of creation. Or perhaps there’s an attempt to cover up all that rough-edged messiness behind the esteemed product of the jeweled necklace. Paint + Jewelry #6 plays much the same game, but here the bracelet or necklace is cut off, leaving the left side of the picture more exposed, as if the game is up.

Harmonious Discord also includes four beautiful pieces in wood by Stephen Klema that play with stacking designs and branching forms evoking the trees the material came from as well as human arms and hands. In Wood’s Revenge, thick trees close their ranks, interlocking like puzzle pieces as if to bar entrance—to the artist? to us?—as their roots form a solid, creeping base. And Heidi Lewis Coleman contributes five intriguing symmetrical collages that read like the view through a kaleidoscope but depend on an unusual medium: the artist’s own stylized writing, derived from abstract languages she created as part of “an ongoing exploration into the aesthetics of using language in art,” her artist’s statement explains.

Curator Hesse has been bringing local artists into the Whitney Center retirement community space for about eight years, offering three shows a year. The gallery was designed as a wide, tiled hallway that links two buildings. That means residents pass by the art daily. “I’ve gotten to know the place well,” Hesse says, adding that she thinks carefully about “what is appropriate in a setting where people live and the public comes and goes” as well as “a variety of artwork that is going to feel fresh” even after four months of continuous viewing. A neighboring space displays the work of resident artists and collectors and turns over its exhibitions at the same time.

The Whitney Center location can’t be beat when it comes to the free, easy parking. Drive in the south entrance and follow signs to the left to park. The gallery is located just inside the main entrance to the right. Well-spaced upholstered chairs along the hallway make it easy to sit and contemplate—both the media and the messages.

Harmonious Discord
Perspectives: The Gallery at Whitney Center – 200 Leeder Hill Dr, Hamden (map)
Tues & Thurs 4-7pm, Sat 1-4pm through May 7
(203) 281-6745 | dhesse@elycenter.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Phyllis Crowley. Images 2 and 4-5 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 3 provided courtesy of the Ely Center of Contemporary Art. Image 2 features detail of work by Marsha Borden. Image 3 features work by Alan Neider. Image 4 features detail of work by Stephen Klema.

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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. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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