Kehler Liddell Gallery

Pretty Pleas

I sit in front of Hong Hong’s 8×12-foot work on paper with Shakespeare on my mind. The stated theme of the new juried exhibition at Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery is a line from the Bard’s 65th sonnet: “How with this Rage shall Beauty hold a Plea?” At first I suspect an artist could submit almost anything under this theme and argue for its relevance. So, will it really hold this show together?

Hong’s All the Light in a Vivid Dream I guides me. It’s an obvious place to start since it’s one of the most imposing works in the show. The floor-to-ceiling paper piece reads at first like a polar image taken from space, with pink pocked earth and flat blue water. A closer look reveals the gorgeous wrinkles and folds of the handmade paper. But the longer I sit before it, the more I see something different: pink sinking to the bottom of the image and blue floating to the top, separating like oil and water. Perhaps like Rage and Beauty. Are they actually mutually exclusive?

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I rise from my bench and wander the gallery. A statement on the gallery’s website suggests a reading of Shakespeare’s quotation as a response to “a time of ugliness,” though he was writing about the raging of time itself, of “sad mortality.” Some of the artists have run with their gallery’s contemporary suggestion, offering up direct responses to the ugliness of 2018. Molly Gambardella’s Me Too may require a double-take. At first glance, her mannequin—a woman’s torso and arms—seems sheathed in a body suit made of black polka dots of varying sizes. But look again: the figure is covered with googly eyes, the kind kids use for craft projects, evoking the kind lascivious men use to leer at women. The largest of these form a chakra-like line from severed neck to heart to solar plexus to pelvis, with medium-sized eyes pinpointing the nipples.

Rod Cook’s Racism is a photographic take on another chronic ugliness. Two lovers—a white woman with long, blonde hair and a muscular black man—stand naked, he loosely embracing her from behind. Facing the viewer, they’re framed by a cracked and broken mirror, as if to suggest that in looking at them, we’re seeing ourselves. The woman leans back into the man, relaxed and serene, but his head is bowed, his face troubled. A skeleton stretches across the shadowy base of the image, its mouth gaping open. The top of the image is adorned with a patriotic bunting.

Nina Chung’s striking pair of photographs, Shadow Siren and Pompeii, depict women whose skin is red and blistered, peeling as if burned, like the parched floor of a desert or the painted wall of an abandoned room. Looking at them is almost painful. Curled in fetal poses, the women are intertwined, hands to another’s face or knee or, more often, not quite touching. While the titles of these works are less suggestive of our particular time, a note on the object labels states that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of these images “will go towards a foundation established in the artist’s name with the mission of helping people experiencing trauma.”

Lest all this sound dark and despairing, the exhibition also offers humor and whimsy and unadulterated beauty. Joe Fekieta’s The Party mocks a magazine’s interior design spread with a blood-stained carpet; Julie Fraenkel’s Rapt depicts a papier-maché figure who has gazed at the sky for so long that a vine has grown around her; Roy Money’s Winter is a beautifully simple photograph of bare winter branches with tassels of red that registers like a pen and ink drawing.

I could go on. 53 artists from Kehler Liddell, a juried artists’ collective, are represented here in paint and ink, on canvas and wood—all the usual suspects—as well as more surprising materials like “traditional Burmese shwe chi doe tapestry techniques & mixed media on cotton with light stabilizing acrylic glaze” and “painted sticks.” Taken together, they make an intriguing compilation that offers seemingly endless meditations on the Shakespearean prompt, or whatever else is on your mind.

On my way out, I learn that the man at the gallery’s front desk is Rod Cook, the artist behind Racism, so I ask him what he thinks of the beauty-amidst-rage theme. “There are too many words around art,” Cook says. When he sees a piece of art, “the first thing I want to do is feel a visceral reaction. It may have a whole lot of hidden meaning to it, but to me it’s not worth the meaning unless my first impression is visual emotional impression.”

As we talk some more, the construct I’ve used to sort the show into rage and beauty cracks and peels away like the skin in Chung’s photographs because, of course, there may be beauty not just to counter the rage but within the rage itself. Cook says the challenge as he saw it was “to address both at the same time.” His nude couple is, indeed, beautiful. So are Gambardella’s dotted design and Chung’s color and form. In art, at least, rage and beauty may coexist.

Shakespeare wonders, “how shall summer’s honey breath hold out / Against the wrackful siege of battering days…?” His answer is that maybe, miraculously, “in black ink my love may still shine bright.” His hope, in other words, is his art.

“How with this Rage shall Beauty hold a Plea?”
Kehler Liddell Gallery – 873 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Thurs-Fri, 11am-4pm; Sat-Sun, 10am-4pm through May 27
(203) 389-9555

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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