Art at Work

Ever think Artspace might be misnamed? The “space” part, we mean. This is an arts institution firmly grounded in the community. Its head’s not in the clouds.

Oh, you think it means “space” as in “a place to hang the art”? If so, it’s still not the most appropriate word choice, since Artspace is one of the most amorphous, flexible and expandable “spaces” in Connecticut.

Artspace flows beyond its brick-and-mortar confines of 50 Orange Street into the community at large. Besides its indoor galleries, it arranges a variety of public art projects in “The Lot,” a vacant lot behind the bus stop on Chapel Street near Orange. Artspace maintains a “Flatfile” of work by artists from Connecticut and nearby states which behaves like a museum in a box: it supports the artists by purchasing and promoting their work, and is made accessible to anyone who wants to view it. Works by six more Connecticut artists (Lani Asuncion, Robert Gregson, David Livingston, Allison Meyler, Aurora Pellizi and Lawrence Russ) have just been accepted into the Flatfile, and will be the subject of an Artspace exhibition May 11 through June 30.

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Artspace is also the force behind City-Wide Open Studios, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last year. Under Artspace’s Executive Director Helen Kauder, CWOS doesn’t just coordinate and promote the opening of artists’ studios around town for a weekend in the fall, as many cities do. New Haven’s Open Studios lasts for three weekends and culminates in hundreds of artists who don’t have studio space they can share with the public, all banding together in a massive (usually vacant or abandoned) building to display their art. This year, CWOS’s “Alternate Space” will be the now-deserted Armory building on Goffe Street.

The 50 Orange Street location has been Artspace’s home for years now, but it began in a former restaurant at the corner of Whitney and Audubon Streets back in the mid-1980s, then moved a block away to 70 Audubon for a while before shifting to a somewhat unwieldy underground location on College Street next to the now-defunct Caffe Adulis. Coincidentally, Ficre Ghebreyesus, that restaurant’s head chef, is being posthumously celebrated this month for his disarming, fantastical paintings of bright, exotic landscapes, seascapes and village life.

Ghebreyesus’ work is beautifully suited to Artspace’s expansive walls and to Artspace itself. There are swirls of activity but there’s also a sense of order. There’s a love of nature and a respect for civilization. There’s a lot of heart in these grand, friendly paintings.

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The space of Artspace is everywhere. And the pace of Artspace is dizzying. The Ghebreyesus exhibit had its public reception weeks ago, and drew as diverse and appreciative a crowd as you could ever hope to see in a downtown art gallery. Yalies. Townies. Other artists. Friends and neighbors. Mayoral candidates. Art-lovers aged from newborn to 80-something. The show, titled Polychromasia, takes up five of Artspace’s smaller gallery spaces with over two dozen paintings ranging in size from 14-by-11 inches to 18-by-6 feet, so many of them could still be appreciated despite the huge crowd. The throngs of humanity complemented Ghebreyesus’ visions of towns, “angel warriors,” schools of fish and the inviting, expansive “City With a River Running Through.”

This Friday, Artspace is hosting a poetry reading from 5 to 7 p.m. in collaboration with the African American Studies Department at Yale University (where Ghebreyesus’s widow, Elizabeth Alexander, is a professor; she wrote and delivered the poem at President Obama’s inauguration ceremonies in 2009). “An Evening of Poetry for Ficre Ghebreyesus” features an impressive lineup of award-winning, crowd-pleasing and thought-provoking writers: Aracelis Girmay (a Connecticut College grad whose work often has political and social justice themes), renowned poet/publisher/teacher Hettie Jones, 2011 Wallace Stevens Award winner Yusef Komunyakaa, 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry-winner Tracy K. Smith (Life on Mars) and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Kevin Young (whose poems have been broadcast in New York City taxicabs).

On April 27, Artspace holds it annual gala fundraiser. This year the event is titled “Amplify,” and carries the metal-friendly affirmation, “For those about to rock, we salute you.” The Saturday evening (5 to 8 p.m.) affair will feature a silent auction of art that has already been on display in the Artspace gallery for weeks now, as well as a live auction held at the former Connecticut Bank & Trust Building at 45 Church Street. WNPR/Hartford Courant humorist Colin McEnroe and Christie’s auctioneer George McNeely are the hosts. The gala is catered by Matura New Zealand Wines, the tapas restaurant Solun and Shake Shack.

If you think that after a month like this, Artspace can get back to “normal,” well, there’s no such thing as normal there. Another major exhibition is on the way: Curated by artist Kenya (Robinson), the show ’Toonskin will examine the concept of “blackness”—in all its meanings, from African-American identity to black as an element in artworks—through the medium of 20th-century comics and animation. Nearly 20 artists are represented. ’Toonskin has its opening reception May 11 and is on view until the end of June. As with so many Artspace projects, it promises intellect, irreverence, sobriety, humor, color, composition—sharpness and sensitivity all at once.

Make space on your calendar for Artspace. It’s a place where art lives and breathes.

50 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Thurs 12-6pm, Fri-Sat 12-8pm
(203) 772-2709

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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