Impressions, Travelogue

New Haven: Art, architecture, clouds, and nativity scenes

New Haven, I learned, is very sleepy during Yale’s winter break. The special exhibitions at Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art are in changeover. Artspace was not open during their normal scheduled hours of the current show. Though the timing of my visit was not ideal, I enjoyed looking for and finding art in New Haven today.

Yale University Art Gallery
First—Louis Kahn’s building knocked my socks off. The exterior was cold and blocky, but the interior featured a beautiful lobby, interesting textures, and warm touches, like the uneven edges on the window scrims, and a cool-while-totally-sensible triangular stairwell. Big points for the handsome building signage in projected light.

Collections worthy of a prestigious Ivy League, like an Assyrian stone wall from the 5th c. BC. C’mon! (It’s the first image in this Flash-based “gallery tour.”)

Lots of gems in European and American art. I studied debossed gold-leaf patterns at length in some stunning pre-Renaissance icons. Duchamp’s Tu M’. A good Nam June Paik closed circuit television installation showing a live video of artificial flowers mounted to the top of the tube. Lucas Samaras’ Chicken Wire Box #4 (1972) and Untitled (1963), a panel covered in concentric circles of different colored yarn, then pinned with hundreds of straight pins (kind of like this). Happy and perception-stretching.

I also very much enjoyed mentions of local industry. The decorative art and design—early modernist nickel-silver tea set, pressed lead glass bowls—manufactured in little Massachusetts towns like Dedham and North Attleboro. They assert a history about designers and craftsmen that contrasts, in my mind, the must-have (in 19th c. wealthy homes and 21st c. general art museums) portraits of wealthy patrons.

joseph smith, tea caddy, 1767, source yale university art gallery

Joseph Smith, Tea caddy, 1767. Source: Yale University Art Gallery website

Joseph Smith’s Tea Caddy (1767) kills me. It looked totally out of place in the vitrine with mirror-polished silver vases. It manages to be endearing and craptastic. The construction of the clay seems unconcerned with formal considerations, but the calligraphic curliques suggest a desire to make it beautiful and refined. It’s surprisingly complex.

I also found the Asian and African art floor inspiring—Chinese watercolors and ceramics spurred me to think about patterns and line and the tropes of genre paintings; a ceremonial mask surrounded by oversized photographs of similar masks in use in Africa seemed like a sensitive approach to exhibiting these objects in contexts so different than their originally intended ones.

Yale Center for British Art
The architecture here is opposite what you’d think—instead of heavy, dark wood paneling with ornate wainscoting is warm, orange-toned wood interrupted with concrete. The galleries were lined with unbleached canvas-covered walls and filled with light. Except for an atrium (pictured on the museum home page), which I found suffocatingly prison-yard-esque, the museum was open and welcoming. This fresh approach seemed reflected in the collections curation. There were what seemed like hundreds of British paintings on view, and I never thought I’d hold up to make it all the way through, but surprising choices in the selections kept my morale up.

John Constable’s Cloud studies are a special treat that alone would make a visit worthwhile. Even for non-painters. (Otherwise you can get the book.)

I also liked the house portraits—they are more like oil-painted illustrated 3-D maps (remember these cheesy illustrated maps?) of English estates. The perspective is often forced and awkward. They’re interesting as cultural documents. (When you have a mansion and gardens upon gardens, do you really need a painting of it too? Do the servants carrying loaded baskets upon their heads evoke the same sense of satisfaction as the parasol-wielding leisure-seekers?) They are, essentially, heavily narrated architectural and informational graphics, and their quirks appeal.

Knights of Columbus Museum

The Knights of Columbus are a Catholic service organization, and they have a huge “museum” (though it seemed more like an office building with some gallery spaces) on the edge of downtown New Haven. I visited and found their exhibition on a recent mosaic project in DC to be informative. Photographs and texts guide viewers step-by-step through the old-world tradition completed with modern industrial tools. From drawing, making the mosaic in sections, scaffolding, to installation, it was great for nerding out on technical side of art making.

There’s also the State Room, full of memorabilia of different honorary gifts that were given to various Knights. The KoC-logo has been emblazoned on cowboy boots, judge’s gavels, and even a Filipino barong. It reminded me of promotional item showrooms, which are fun to visit as an artist.

The real reason I went to the KoC Museum, though, was for the Christmas in Asia exhibition of crèches, or nativity scenes. They were so brilliant that I am still disappointed that photography was not permitted; after all, I didn’t see any individual artists credited. While a few works were attributed to specific woodcarving workshops in China, the overwhelming majority was to “Unknown Artist”—presumably, some street vendor who sold the item in a brief transaction where Western currencies were advantageous and an exhibition loan form was absent. But whatever.

The crèches generally fell into two groups. In the first category, it seemed as if Asian craftsmen did a competent job of simulating Western realism, as well as tropes about the nativity scene and the participant’s appearances. This is interesting as an outcome of globalization. The objects were made for Western audiences, or for a local audience that prefers their nativity scenes traditional. The second category, however, spoke to my taste for the awkward and funny cross-cultural translations. In these cases, artists interpreted the nativity scene with local materials (bamboo, Korean paper mâche, Indonesian woodcarving, Filipino shells) and traditional forms. Sometimes the manger was substituted with a raised bamboo platform-hut with a thatched roof. The camels gave way to elephants (Pakistan) and a cat (Korea). This kind of willful naiveté was captured in an elaborately traditional Thai scene, featuring wrapped skirts on the women, farmer’s shirts on the men and a gilt fruit basket loaded with tropical fruit. The kicker was that the three wise men included a saffron-robed monk.

The crèches might indicate a darker truth—local craftsmen turning to non-native narratives to appeal to tourists’ tastes, not to mention colonialism. However, there are other possible explanations, and here’s one: For my mom, a Buddhist, Christ presents neither conflict nor contradiction. (In fact, I think the reason Christianity is not my cup of tea is because it’s incapable of this kind of religious tolerance.) It’s possible that some of these folk crafts emerge from the same feeling of nonchalant appropriation. Or maybe the craftspeople just love Christmas.

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