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.

Activist Imagination, Research

Artist’s Talks: Rave. Rave. Rant.

Just heard two fantastic artist’s talks tonight!

I love artist’s talks that create narratives and contextualize work with key biographical facts, relevant personality traits and intellectual and artistic interests. It’s a superior means of learning about art and artists than reading C.V.s and looking at still images. I’m much more compelled to hear what the artist has to say and why he/she makes art. I’m looking for evidence that the artist is deeply engaged in an ongoing inquiry.


That’s why I loved hearing the talk by Scot Kaplan, a visual artist from Ohio with a conceptual- and performance-based practice engaged with the psychology of contemporary life. He also teaches theory in a university art department, which I believe accounts for his articulate, well-oiled presentation, insightful self-examination, and that driving, insistent willingness to challenge dominant paradigms (a characteristic of all the theory professors I’ve met).

Kaplan’s presentation was great because he was ready to establish the context at the start, posing the questions that drive his inquiry (about examining power relationships) and citing influences, like a Harper’s Index item on the average time spent looking at a work of art in a museum (0.6 seconds). Contending with the typical viewer’s superficial engagement with works of art, Kaplan admitted to feeling belligerence towards the viewer; that as an artist, he would require some investment from the viewer to experience his work. I wholeheartedly agree: I’m not interested in making work for others’ visual pleasure, available at their leisure. The world is full of beautiful, attractive, cute or endearing images, and the avalanche of imagery shows no signs of slowing. So as my work becomes less visual and more experiential, I’m fine with leaving those 0.6 seconds of the typical viewers’ gaze behind, if it means more selective but more meaningful engagement.

Kaplan presented early work clearly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s L’Etant Donnes. He made a series of provocative portal-like structures, such as altered viewfinders, wall-mounted boxes into which viewers insert their heads to hear audio tracks, and even a fridge-disguised portal leading to a hidden listening chamber.

Viewer interaction was required to experience those objects and installations, but Kaplan also presented work where the viewer became agent and subject. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about since my work for Activist Imagination. Kaplan’s work, though, directly addressed power relationships. For example, he created a small room that locked viewers inside for 90 seconds at a time, as well as a tightly-controlled project where individual viewers gave commands to the artist, who inhabited an adjacent room behind a security mirror. It was a performative social experiment that tested the lengths to which the artist and viewers would go, and it brought to mind the work of Marina Abramovich (two wrongs don’t make a right, but I still felt somewhat relieved to see someone other than a woman subjected to the disturbing, violent whims of others) and Philip Zimbardo, the author of the Stanford jail experiment that revealed how quickly ‘normal’ people abuse power. Kaplan executed this project in two locations in South Africa: a privileged university campus, and a Black township. While the performance is an important component, perhaps more so, the work is about the findings of the experiment: college students more often gave Kaplan abusive commands, while the township’s residents allowed the artist more dignity.

Kaplan’s work is provocative, but he seems thoughtful and not the least bit driven by shock value or ostentatious moralizing. His projects may be subversive, but are purpose-driven. The works create a condition where the artist’s vulnerability incites the viewers; they become culpable for completing the work of art, and in the process, making or breaking a social bond.


Ivy Ma, an artist from Hong Kong, makes poetic, phenomenological installations and photographs, and quiet but impressive drawings and paintings. I was really impressed with the diversity of her media, her capacity to create site-specific projects on residencies around the world, and how true she is to her investigation. Site-specific work can be challenging in your home town, much less thousands of miles away from your studio, tools and materials.

Like Kaplan, Ma makes some performative works involving her body, but Ma is interested in outdoor environments, like the Finnish lakes or her rapidly redeveloping Hong Kong.

She presented her work in a way that was modest and endearing — this style seems characteristic of non-native speakers from East Asia — yet she’s a fierce intellect, methodical in her presentation style, undaunted by tedious projects (like drawing a nearly life-sized tree with a fine-tipped pen, or sorting beach pebbles by color) and citing references ranging from noted Bay Area authors, Rebecca Solnit and Anne Lamott.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ma’s work and presentation. It wasn’t until later that I thought about Ma’s work in relation to identity politics—something that seems to hound A.P.A. arts presenters and the artists working with them. In fact, Ma doesn’t seem interested in identity politics at all. She’s focused on her relationship to nature, solitude, and her physical environment. She may be a contemporary artist from China, but her work isn’t about the hangover from the Cultural Revolution. She may be an Asian artist making art in North America and Europe, but she’s not hung up on re-hashing cross-cultural issues. Maybe we could lighten up about it too.


Unfortunately, not all artist’s talks are so inspiring.

Twice, I’ve had the odd experience of feeling invisible as artists of color talked about their work in terms of representing a community of identity. What happened was this: male artists of color used their talks to “speak truth to power” — to call out a predominantly white, privileged, liberal audience on their convenient progressivism and color blindness. To me, their radical or identity-based work became less effective, because the talk essentialized their art. Instead of being artists, they became cultural-political ambassadors.

Of course, I have more to learn about other racial perspectives and identities. Of course, the rarefied art world ought to be reminded of its privileged status. Of course, liberalism can stand to be nudged along by radical insights.

But if the goal is to challenge racism, gross generalizations about the whiteness of an audience — which includes people of color with radical politics like me! — is just a poor tactic. One artist seemed intent on assaulting the audience with his didactic videos played at extremely high volume. [I’ll pass. An aspiring drummer in my teens, I’m entering my thirties a tinnitus sufferer. My ears are ringing like I just left a concert–every day.] Another artist made the statement, “We tend to be color blind” or “We don’t talk about race” (“we” meaning, presumably, white liberals). Actually, I talk about race all freakin’ the time. You talking about race and saying that I never talk about it makes me feel invisible. That is color blind.