Everything and More

A bstract art had never been my favorite. I’d always found it somewhat aloof, as if the artists were trying to keep some distance between me and their ideas. So the prospect of reviewing A Way to See Everything and Nothing, an abstraction-oriented exhibition at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art (ECOCA) through January 14, didn’t thrill me.

As it turns out, I’ve been totally won over by Everything and Nothing. I think the turning point came when I encountered The Poetics of Mass-Weighted Medium Diameter by Hamden artist Greg Garvey. The multitouch-sensitive computer-generated 3D artwork simulates the patterns of rain on a closed window. Touch it and you’ll hear the sound of a finger tapping a window; run your finger along it and you can change the water patterns, their forms both representational and abstract. “This work tests the audience,” says exhibit co-creator Suzan Shutan of SomethingProjects, her curatorial partnership with fellow New Haven artist Howard el-Yasin. “How long will they allow themselves to stand in front of a work of art and really look at it?”

I was similarly attracted to Sylvia Schwartz’s The Carrier, an installation constructed of fabric, paint, handmade paper, wood, metal and plastic. Hung in front of one of ECOCA’s downstairs windows, its translucency allows the piece to shift along with everyday changes outside. “Whether it’s sunny and bright or gray and cloudy, that really alters the work,” Shutan says. “Sylvia wants to create a video that tracks the changes in her installation through an entire day.”

The 23 artists represented here—nearly half of whom reside in Connecticut—have made ECOCA and its Elizabethan-style John Slade Ely House a warmer place. There’s a devilish sense of humor afoot in Zach Zecha’s The direction of speech is mis-understood by All, a cockeyed assemblage of wood, drywall, mylar, cardboard, paint and rope that defies logic yet reminds me of every convoluted conversation I’ve ever had. Seth Callander’s topsy-turvy vertical painted chestnut wood sculpture Under the Tip of the Iceberg simply defies gravity.

From certain angles, I could see how each of the works embodied everything and nothing. Rebeccah Murtaugh’s glazed ceramic sculpture Pinch and Burrow: Beads, Cobblestone, Orange, and Grapel is a dense textural bubble that looks like a beach rock covered with barnacles, yet the middle has been totally removed, leaving a perfect rectangle of emptiness. “It’s almost like a void you can crawl into,” Shutan remarks. The emptiness is much more fluid in Hyunsek Erickson’s Thingumabob Tribe #3, a collection of colorful synthetic fiber- and polyfill-adorned metal and PVC pipes that look like Timothy Leary’s chess board. Move one piece or another, and the whole dynamic of the work is changed. Shutan sees the exhibition as an expression of the Japanese idea that “emptiness is also an entity that is filling, that occupies space.”

Everything and Nothing came together in nontraditional fashion. Rather than putting out a call for submissions that would fit a proposed theme, Shutan and el-Yasin combed through more than 100 works already received as a result of the gallery’s open calls in 2023. “Ultimately, we landed on this particular theme because we felt there was overwhelming strength in the works related to abstraction,” el-Yasin says. “We’re not suggesting that all of the artists technically think of their works as abstract—but we’re classifying them as abstract in a more broad, expansive way.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention several other exhibitions now on view at ECOCA. Ken Grimes: The Truth Is Out There currently overlaps with the artist’s retrospective Evidence for Contact, running at New York City’s Ricco/Maresca Gallery through Dec. 2. Grimes, a Cheshire native, examines eccentric notions of extraterrestrial intelligence and cosmic coincidence through dramatic yet playful black and white acrylic works on canvas (though lately he’s exploring the use of color). A book signing honoring the recent publication of a coffee table tome celebrating his 40-year career, also titled Evidence for Contact (Anthology Editions), will be held at ECOCA tomorrow, November 29, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Andree Brown: Leaves of Durham was instigated by the artist’s recent residency at Durham’s Zero Foot Hills, where, she writes, “I had a studio and living space in the woods to explore the natural environment in isolation and silence. Since then, I have continued to explore various parks and forests in New England to find native leaves, plants, branches and rocks that live in that area. I am passionate about bringing my interpretations of the forest to the community.” Her ECOCA exhibit consists of multi-sized and -shaped abstract sculptures of indigenous leaves fashioned from Styrofoam, plaster, glazed porcelain, polished green wax.

Home, meanwhile, is a group show highlighting the mixed-media constructions of Amartya De and Lesley Finn and, in oils on canvas and acrylic on silk, the expressive florals of Vera Wu, All of these pieces were created during the pilot run of ECOCA’s Keyhole Artists in Residence program, in which the participants were invited to create their interpretations of “home” in the attic rooms that composed the Ely House’s former servants’ quarters.

ECOCA is also currently home to Desmond Beach’s installation Threads of Memory, which employs large quilt tapestries with portraiture and a site-specific altar featuring handmade needlework. “My work is rooted in the rich tradition of African storytelling… My ancestors and those of the African Diaspora are honored in my work, and through performance and installation art, I build sacred spaces for their souls to rest,” Beach writes. “My ultimate goal… is to take the pain and trauma of the Black experience and to turn it into something that inspires and uplifts.”

Art can do that, we know—and the odds are especially good when five art shows converge in one historic house.

Ely Center of Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull St, New Haven (map)
Winter Hours: Wed, Thurs, Sun noon-5pm
(203) 507-7320

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Images 1 (of Greg Garvey’s The Poetics of Mass-Weighted Medium Diameter), 2 (of Sylvia Schwartz’s The Carrier), 3 (of Rebeccah Murtaugh’s Pinch and Burrow: Beads, Cobblestone, Orange, and Grapel) and 5 (of Andree Brown’s Big Leaf) provided courtesy of the artists. Images 4 (of Hyunsek Erickson’s Thingumabob Tribe #3 in situ), 6 (of Vera Wu’s Vision of My Flower in situ) and 7 (of Desmond Beach’s Ceremony of Silence in situ) photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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