Messages Received

Messages Received

Once the site of garden parties for the well-heeled guests of Grace T. Ely, the back yard of the Ely Center of Contemporary Art is hosting once more. Today it’s an extension of ECOCA’s indoor galleries, at the moment the site of work by 10 of the 17 artists in the new exhibition NOW, each of them reacting to the unprecedented events of a “turbulent and uncertain” year.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece in the outdoor portion of the exhibition is Susan McCaslin’s Scattering (2020). Its location along a subterranean passageway on the east side of the building makes it possible to “come upon” it, as McCaslin intended. The installation could be mistaken at first for a random array of tar paper shreds torn from a roof in a storm, a fitting metaphor for 2020. But these scraps of a somewhat uniform size and shape have been rearranged, forming a pathway that leads to a shingled curtain or door. Who knew roofing material could be so beautiful? The basic black, brown and gray strips are subtly speckled with colorful paint. Some of them sparkle in the afternoon light. Dead leaves have fallen here and there. The “un-structuring of the structure,” as McCaslin’s statement puts it, is followed by a mysterious restructuring. What is concealed behind that curtain? We both fear and desire to find out.

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Across the lawn, Ruby Gonzalez Hernandez’s What Might Be Now (2020) is a paneled blue door cut into smaller rectangles and pieced not-quite-together on the grass. Painted on it are the curving bars of a prison cell, clutched by prisoners’ hands. The piece is a study in contrasts: rigid geometrical blocks versus bending bars, a thematic display of strength versus the physical vulnerability of laying the artwork bare on the ground. The color and texture of the bars themselves heighten this emotional push-and-pull; they are skeletal, striated white and gray, suggesting the bones of the imprisoned, but these bones are bending, not breaking. The effect is fiercely resilient.

Cindy Tower’s Protest Pile (2020) is the outdoor attention-grabber. Stacked against ECOCA’s brick wall is a woodpile of logs, each bearing the portrait of a protestor on its circular cross-section. Many of the faces are masked. One holds a bullhorn, painted on the log next to it. Protruding from this “pile” are branches and signposts like raised arms demanding justice. Protest signs large and small address the issues of the day: Black Lives Matter, the Trump presidency, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, immigration. Guests are invited to add their own signs and slogans to this colorful, dynamic construction.

If you’d prefer to stay outdoors, there’s plenty more to see. But if you’re ready to go inside, NOW continues with a different type of protest signage, documented in Martha Lewis’s nightly QuarantineCineGram (2020) messages, which she writes herself or collects from friends and projects each evening at dusk through her kitchen window on Pearl Street. Lewis posted her first message on March 28; a slide show here presents the first 100. “I Did Not Intend / To Have My Kitchen / Requisitioned / In The Name Of Art / In The Name Of Science / In The Name Of Protest / Indefinitely,” reads one. “But Then Again: / Why Not? / Art Is Life / & This The Marker / of My Time With You, / My COVID Calendar.”

Even as NOW presents the work of 17 artists—from New Haven and other parts of Connecticut as well as New York, Florida, Maryland and Rhode Island—ECOCA has mounted a second exhibition in three of its upstairs galleries. Brooklyn artist Christina Massey started the USPS Art Project to encourage collaboration between artists while maintaining social distance. Hundreds of artists responded; one would create a piece, then mail it to the second, who added, subtracted or otherwise modified the work. Final pieces were then mailed to one of the locations on the exhibition’s tour, including Pelham, New York; Dallas; Denver; and, of course, New Haven, with further sites to be announced.

ECOCA’s version of the project includes more than 100 paintings, drawings, textile arts and mixed media works. “We had a call here, and anyone who wanted to could enter,” says New Haven artist Margaret Roleke, who curated NOW and organized ECOCA’s showing of the USPS Art Project. That democratic approach is one of the things Roleke loves most about ECOCA. “We have really good art,” she says, “but it also is very inclusive.” The USPS Art Project hopes not only to connect artists by mail but also to support the besieged postal service.

Apparently, it’s already working. In order to receive all those postage-paying Project pieces, ECOCA had to lease a PO box.

NOW and the USPS Art Project
Ely Center of Contemporary Art – 51 Trumbull St, New Haven (map)
Thurs 5-8pm, Sun 1-4pm and by appointment through November 15
Opening receptions October 1 and October 8

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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