Rare Birds

A t the end of February, more than 100 people gathered on the sixth floor of the Blake Hotel to inaugurate the city’s newest exhibition space: The Gallery, curated by Kehler Liddell Gallery. It was the opening of the first show, Winter Garden, and wine was flowing as artgoers literally rubbed elbows with artists. Liz Antle-O’Donnell, KLG’s director and one of 20 contributors to the show, cradled her baby in a pack while discussing her playful lino print and paper collages. Eventually, KLG assistant director Muffy Pendergast corralled the audience for an informal talk on how to “channel your inner curator”—how to choose, curate, frame and light a personal art collection. It’s the last time I recall being in a crowd.

With that in mind, my return to The Gallery on a steamy July afternoon felt bittersweet. I was masked and alone. In the elevator, a newly installed hand sanitizer spat foam into my palm. But on the sixth floor, sunlight still illuminated bottles in gold, red and green through the window of High George, the rooftop bar and restaurant adjacent to The Gallery, and a pair of wood benches cut from a single forked tree trunk were still polished and waiting. Best of all, a brand new summer show had been mounted.

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PenRod Studio’s Vanishing: African Birds is a collection of 16 photographs taken by the married team of Rod and Penrhyn Cook on a trip to the Serengeti ecosystem of Africa. The images read at first as paintings, and even viewed up close, their pixels feel more like the work of an impressionistic paintbrush than a digital file. The effect, Penrhyn says, is achieved by using textured overlays like rice paper or stucco on each image. Add to that the geometry and color of the birds themselves and the fact that their ecosystem is endangered, and you have a show that feels both visually compelling and urgent. “We are not experts on the incredibly complex issues that threaten the region and can’t speak to what solutions, if any, there are to alleviate the situation,” the artists write in a statement. “We can only attempt to visually represent what we saw and how we felt about it.”

In Vultures in a Tree (2019), one of the first pieces visitors see upon stepping from the Blake’s elevators, a lone tree stands on the grassland, its trunk curved like an arm reaching up into its flat-topped canopy, where two vultures sit, surveying the landscape. The entire print is bathed in dabs of green and gold, giving it the feel of a Romantic landscape painting. At the same time, the camera delivers the realism of each individual leaf on the tree and the sharp gaze of the birds.

The skinny, straight legs of a group of flamingos juxtaposed with their muscular, curved necks makes for an interesting geometric study in Four Flamingos (2019). In Great Speckled Bird (2019), a guinea fowl with a bright green head and a red comb provides its own geometric fancies in the lavishly spotted and striped design of its feathers, green on black. It seems to be puffing its chest for our benefit as it turns its head coyly to the side.

Nearly every image in Vanishing depicts a different bird species: egrets, cranes, flamingos, stilts, storks, vultures, guinea fowls, southern hornbills, plovers, ostriches. The sheer variety speaks to the wonder and accompanying shame the Cooks report feeling as they note the many ways in which humans fail to protect and care for these wild creatures.

If you visit The Gallery during High George’s hours, you can finish your viewing with a summery cocktail like a Crushed Dark N Stormy (Angostura 5-Year Gold Rum, lemon juice, Fentimans ginger beer, $10) or an Isolation Lite (Falernum-infused Roku gin, lime, crème de violette, Frangelico, grapefruit bitters, nutmeg, dehydrated grapefruit, $12). While the hotel’s downstairs restaurant, Hamilton Park, is closed for the pandemic summer, you can also order a full dinner (entrees $15-$28) or dessert ($2-$10) upstairs. High George’s winter decor of frosty pine trees, fur-covered chairs and candle lanterns has been switched out for tall potted plants whose fronds flap in breezes gusting through the wide-open windows.

If you come to The Gallery when the restaurant is closed, you should stop in at the front desk, but there’s no need to check in to one of the Blake’s 106 rooms. “We would like to be hosting not just our hotel guests but members of the community,” Blake co-owner Claire Salvatore said at the February opening, and it’s good to be back.

The Gallery at the Blake Hotel
currently showing Vanishing: African Birds by Rod and Penrhyn Cook
9 High St, 6th Fl, New Haven (map)
(203) 390-5352 | info@theblakenewhaven.com
The Blake Hotel | Kehler Liddell Gallery

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images provided courtesy of Rod and Penrhyn Cook.

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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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