Space Exploration

Space Exploration

The new name, NXTHVN, is painted on the doors, but that doesn’t immediately say as much as the old sign above the west portion of the brick complex, which reads “Macalaster Bicknell / Laboratory Supplies • Glass Blowing.” So, the neighbors are asking, “What’s going on in there?” says Terence Washington, NXTHVN’s new program director.

NXTHVN describes itself as a “multidisciplinary arts incubator,” but that, too, leaves much to the imagination. You really have to step inside to see what the institution, opened last year by founders Titus Kaphar, Jason Price and Jonathan Brand, is all about.

sponsored by

House of Naan - Patio and Interior Dining Now Open

The east side of the building—really a pair of repurposed industrial spaces, one that manufactured ice cream and one laboratory supplies—is home to seven spacious studios and the second cohort of NXTHVN’s Studio Fellows, emerging artists who are both mentored by experts and mentors to local high school students as they spend a year working on their skills and their art while making important connections that, it’s hoped, will help advance their careers.

The program also supports Curatorial Fellows—early-career curators given the opportunity to learn by doing as they put together two exhibitions during their time at NXTHVN. Last year’s fellows designed the current show, Countermythologies, on view through July 19. The exhibition opened just before COVID-19 closed the city down and is now being seen for the first time since March.

Speaking from Houston, where she’s on her next fellowship, co-curator Ana Tuazon says she and fellows Zalika Azim and Riham Majeed were given a “blank slate” and an ample budget to create Countermythologies. “The expectation was that we would come up with the concept, we would provide the checklist of artists and works, we would completely organize the show from start to finish,” Tuazon says. The experience gave her the opportunity to learn more than how to come up with a theme for an exhibition and a list of artists to fill it; she and Azim and Majeed also learned about budgeting, working with artists’ agents, shipping art, creating a catalog and other nuts and bolts of curation. Being part of NXTHVN’s first curatorial cohort also provided the challenge of designing an exhibition for a gallery space that didn’t exist yet. Despite working with blueprints and a 3D model, the simplest of questions remained, Tuazon says, like where electrical outlets would be.

What emerges from the work of Tuazon and her colleagues is an exhibition that questions the prevailing myths of America and what it means to live in a nation professing to value “liberty and justice for all.” “Our idea with Countermythologies was to highlight artworks that would offer alternative understandings of what American belonging could look like or sound like,” Tuazon says.

The single large gallery at NXTHVN is first seen through a glass wall that offers a view of the exhibition as a whole—in this case, dominated on its far wall by Xaviera Simmons’s The Gold Miner’s Mission to Dwell on the Tide Line (2015), constructed of white text painted on a black background of wood slats. The text, as Azim writes in the exhibition catalog, is an improvisation on historical narratives that typically exclude the perspective of marginalized peoples. “Simmons addresses this problem head-on by actively rewriting accounts that exclude the disenfranchised groups and by reconfiguring old systems of language,” Azim writes.

Simmons’s new language, which sometimes takes up rhythmic repetition and eschews punctuation breaks and even breaks between words, recounts an ocean journey in search of gold, in which “the coast shudders and surges between the boats.” At the same time, the lines of text themselves are broken into two parts, suggesting the ocean lapping up against a straight coastline. “There are more displaced people now than at any other time in recorded history,” reads the line in the lower right corner, a shift from the ocean-coast language that’s as sudden as the crash of a boat into land.

The multimedia exhibition includes the work of eight artists in total, bringing together different histories under a common statement. Jarrett Key’s video Hair Painting #14 (2019), a dramatic physical performance in which the artist literally uses a ponytail of their hair for a paintbrush, is accompanied by snippets of sound—music, conversation, advice from family members—that put the canvas Hair Painting #15 (2017), hung beside it, in context. “I could show them better than I could tell them,” a woman says at one point; she’s talking about setting a good example, but the line resonates as if it were a statement on Key’s creative work.

Edgar Arceneaux’s photograph First Dress: Frank Lawson as Ben Vereen as Bert Williams (2017), along with his sculptures Red Ronnie (2017) and Blue Bert (2017), references a 1981 televised performance on the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s first presidential inauguration that was intended to acknowledge “the history of segregation in American theater,” Azim writes. But the TV editing distorted the intended message with disastrous consequences. Bethany Collins’s America: A Hymnal (2017) and Do You Know Them? (1897) (2018) give new attention to historic documents, including a little-known version of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” penned by W.E.B. DuBois and 19th-century classified ads searching for family members separated by slavery. “This show is our attempt to kind of provide through art a way of reckoning with these dark histories,” Tuazon says, “but also how people have struggled through them and how people’s ancestors have struggled through them.”

Next to NXTHVN’s gallery is a large, open community space whose concrete floor and brick walls in the great hall, or “aula,” are softened by couches, benches and tables with chairs. A set of steps at the far end can serve as both seating and stage. The eventual vision is for this space to host community co-working as well as meetings, performances and other events. Still to be constructed are additional artist studios, residences for fellows, a black box theater and a cafe.

It’s not the spaces, though, that meant the most to Tuazon during her year with NXTHVN; it was the people she met and the relationships she cultivated. “The sense of community is very strong there, and I think that’s what Titus and the other founders had in mind… a real community of people who are supporting each other,” Tuazon says. She appreciates, too, that at NXTHVN, “there is intentional support of artists of color and curators of color.”

Terence Washington, the program director, says he chose to come to NXTHVN partly because of its location in the Dixwell community. Now, with the warm weather and outside activity as the building reopens, he’s beginning to recognize people on the street. “We introduce ourselves, we chat a little bit, we connect. Hopefully they’ll come back,” he says.

Tuazon agrees. NXTHVN is meant to be inclusive while at the same time maintaining “a very high bar for the idea of the work is being produced,” she says, and that means taking on the common impression that art spaces aren’t for regular people.

Even if Countermythologies weren’t its first show, NXTHVN would still be countering a mythos.

169 Henry St, New Haven (map)
Countermythologies, showing through July 19, 2020
Daily 2-6pm and by appointment

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

More Stories