Artspace Celebrates 30 Years With New Exhibition

Brian Slattery Photo James Montford drew on the walls of Artspace’s gallery Saturday evening, as the gallery on Orange and Crown celebrated its 30th anniversary. America, he wrote, in upside down letters that he then blotted with his hand. When he had finished his task, Shola Cole swooped in and began to own the space. She picked up a noose off the floor and regarded it like a historical artifact.

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,” Cole said, addressing the crowd in front of her, as if half-remembering the famous Emma Lazarus poem that adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. She wrote it on the wall. “With conquering limbs astride from land to land,” she said with more certainty. “Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand / A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles.” Then she began to tell her own story.

Cole’s and Montford’s performance was the centerpiece of the opening of “Three Decades of Change: Artspace’s 30th Reunion Exhibition,”which celebrates 30 years of exhibitions at Artspace by looking back at some of Artspace’s greatest hits. The past weekend was also full of activities for participating artists from parties and concerts to panel discussions. On Saturday evening, in addition to the performance, that meant a guided tour of the various parts of the retrospective with the artists who had curated the original shows at Artspace from the 1990s to the present.

The exhibit runs through July 8.

As the curators and artists discussed their past work from the perspective of the present, a few themes emerged. One was clear just by looking. “All the artists were pretty political,” said artist and curator Suzan Shutan. “It’s hard to escape it,” she said, as the artists were just “responding to the world.”

So there was Montford’s original piece from 1994, Will he pee in his pants and Classical and Neo Classical Blackheads. At the performance, which Shutan had curated the accompanying label explained, “James wore a hood and tied his body in ropes nailed to a wall.” The ropes had been tied into nooses, so that the “performance was suggestive of lynching and electrocution.” In the packed space and the summer heat, Montford actually fainted under the hood and began to strangle as the noose around his neck tightened. He really did pee his pants, Shutan said; it was when attendees saw “a puddle on the floor” that they knew something was wrong. It took 10 people from the audience to get him out of the nooses. When he regained consciousness, Shutan said, “he wanted to get back on” the wall.

An exhibition attendee on Saturday mentioned that the image of Montford in his nooses looked an awful lot like the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib, where U.S. soldiers had tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners a decade after Montford’s performance. But that connection tied Montford’s 1994 piece to Mohammad Hafez’s His Majesty’s Throne, which hung in the exhibition as a present-day echo of a 2002 Artspace show entitled “Duct Tape.” At the time, artists had been asked to use duct tape in response to government instructions for people to seal up their houses and apartments with duct tape in case of a chemical attack. Curator Sarah Fritchey thought the 2002 exhibition should be represented in the present-day show but couldn’t track down the original curators, and so asked Hafez to step in. Hafez’s contribution was not only his sculpture — like much of his work, about the war and atrocities in Syria — but also a wall painted with blackboard paint on which he invited anyone to write down quotes from politicians who lied. He called these “free democracy lessons.”

But a deeper narrative also took shape as the evening progressed, of Artspace as a place that fosters collaboration between artists, whether it’s New Haven artists meeting their neighbors or forging a partnership with artists from abroad.

Brooklyn-based artist and curator Colleen Coleman spoke about the exhibit “Ain’t I A Woman,” which she had put together at Artspace in 1995. That exhibit had asked artists to interpret abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s speech to the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention in 1848. “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone,” Truth had said then, “these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again.”

As Fritchey did with Hafez, Coleman asked artist Deborah Dancy to fulfill the exhibit’s instructions in 2017. Dancy responded with photographs from 2011 and 2016. Coleman explained that Dancy’s Queen Bea #1 and #2 were images of empowerment as much as oppression. It was important that the figure was missing her face. “She’s the queen bee, and no one can miss her because of her blackness.”

“I see Deborah’s work as an opportunity to have a space for black women,” Coleman said.

Artist Joan Fitzsimmons, based in Connecticut, spoke about her long-term collaborations with fellow photographer Jacek Malinowski, based in Warsaw, Poland. She was the subject of Half a Woman #1, #2, and #3, digital videos Malinowski made in 2000 in New Haven and in Poland that starred Fitzsimmons as, well, half a woman. In the films, the camera follows her as she — appearing only from the torso up, thanks to a humorous simple set that cuts her off at the waist — talks about her existence and attempts to do simple things like boil water and bustle about the house. Meanwhile, in Warsaw, Malinowski and his neighbors became the subjects of Fitzsimmons’s photograph series Surveillance.Warsaw.156, made between 2007 and 2012. Fitzsimmons supposed the photos, all taken through the peephole of Malinowski’s apartment door, were influenced by the stories of spying she knew from the Cold War era.

“Jacek never knew I photographed him until the photos were in the exhibit,” Fitzsimmons said.

The spirit of collaborative reinterpretation sprang to life on Saturday with New Haven-raised artist Shola Cole reinterpreting Montford’s Will he pee in his pants. As Cole worked through Lazarus’s poem, she began to invite audience members to help her, handing them the noose ends of the rope to use as a handle and then stretching them tight, as if she was a balloon, and would float away without them. She took the artifacts of Montford’s original performance — the black hood, the nooses, which had been preserved for 20 years — and transformed them.

“These ropes scare me,” Montford said when asked what he thought about seeing them years after performing the piece. “They’ve always scared me.” And in the original piece, they were instruments of violence and oppression. But in Cole’s reinterpretation, they became tethers and anchors, tools for exploration and strength.

“The first thing I said was, ‘I am not being bound by any ropes,’” Cole said. Likewise, the hood became “a cape a superhero would wear,” Cole explained after the performance.

What had they learned from working together? someone asked. “This has taught me about what legacy I’m coming into,” Cole said. It gave her a sense of history.

Meanwhile, Montford spoke of the freedom that came from shaking up old routines by working with Cole. “I can take more risks,” he said. At Artspace, they met in the middle, took old things, and made something new.

Three Decades of Change runs at Artspace, 50 Orange St., through July 8. Click here for hours and more information. Admission is free.

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posted by: Bill Saunders on June 27, 2017  12:20pm

One of the ‘original curators’ of the 2002 Duct Tape show was Jeffrey Benjamin and he is currently living in Kingston, NY.  (credit where credit is do, Artspacers).

Also, bringing Hafez in to ‘represent’ in the absence of the Duct Tape Curators doesn’t really make sense.  His work stands on it’s own, and he is a recent Artspace favorite. 

Fritchey is trying to ‘connect’ what shouldn’t be connected.  She wasn’t around for a lot of ‘the past’, and that inexperience with the community shows…..

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 27, 2017  1:15pm

Also, The Duct Tape show was in Late Spring, 2003, not in 2002. 
The Duct Tape Hysteria didn’t start until Feb, 2003.

In 2002, the show Artspace put on for their premiere in their new space, was ‘The Backpack Show’, which was supposed to be some sort of ‘statement’ about school violence.

The interesting connection between those two shows is that they were both were an open artists call—Community was at the base of those early shows…...  Now we are just falling out of the narrative….

posted by: robn on June 27, 2017  1:39pm

Duct Tape Curator = Jeff Benjamin
Location = Erector Square
Date = March 29, 2003

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 27, 2017  2:24pm

Robn,

As I recall, it started at Erector Square and moved to Artspace in June, around Arts and Ideas time.  I remember a duct taped Godzilla winding up at that year’s Ideat Village, which tells me when the show was over….

Weirdly, I walked past Artspace today to see the show.  There was a duct tape flag from that exhibit, listing Mark Andreas as a ‘curator’ as well.  That seems to be correct in my mind.  Last I hung out with Mark, he was working for Julian Schnabbel in NYC.

So, there is a big disconnect here…..  It seems Fritchey is using the Duct Tape Show as a segue into promoting her Pet Syrian Artist, otherwise the unfound curators would have at least been mentioned by name, as would the Duct Tape Flag on display..

NHI is complicit by not publishing the picture of the Duct Tape Flag, by Phyllis something, and played into the misleading narrative.

posted by: robn on June 27, 2017  2:42pm

memory fuzzy but i think Mark and Jeff shared a studio

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 27, 2017  3:33pm

Sounds right, Robn.  If they didn’t share a studio, they were in close proximity…
Two really cool and talented artists….

It looks like Mark and his kinetic sculptures are doing quite well in Europe these days…

posted by: jeffb on June 27, 2017  4:11pm

Thanks very much Bill and Robn. The idea for the show came about as Mark and I were sitting in his studio, talking about the sorry state of the world. The idea to do the show was Mark’s. I took it upon myself to invite all of New Haven :) but it really was a grassroots thing, and the first show happened in Erector square in both of our studios, then it travelled to artspace which was clearly using it as an opportunity to create greater community support. I went along with it because I cared about the cause. Many other people were so instrumental and showed so much enthusiasm for this, that really, we all co-curated the show, and we all worked really hard on it: Andrea Dove, Louise Harter, Eric Davis, Rob Narracci, Leslie Blatteau, Eric Staats, Jen Van Elswyk, Ralph Ferrucci, Laura Boyer…. the list goes on, there was a lot of support and both events were really nice. It was, plain and simple, an anti-war art show. So many of us couldn’t believe we were going through this again.
Mark and I recently received word from artspace that “we couldn’t find you” (?) but were so happy that they finally did. I take this with more than a grain of salt but it’s in keeping with the art world in general (politics first, art second—-or last!), but I’m happy they have some kind of memory, even if it is a little off. At least the event and the work is being remembered and represented, so others know that there were a lot of serious people who worked and suffered to try to prevent another ridiculous war. I’ll send a link of this discussion to Mark, in case he wants to agree, disagree, add or correct anything I’ve said. Thanks to Rob Narracci, for forwarding. Thanks again, Bill and Robn.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 27, 2017  9:11pm

The other thing that you cleared up Benjamin, is that you and Mark NEVER would have called yourselves curators.  It was an open community show.  It is the first thought that came to my mind when you were non-existent and unfindable.

Once again Fritchey’s privilege (and degree) are showing…...

posted by: sarahfritchey on June 28, 2017  7:46am

All, please come to Artspace to view the exhibition before adding further comments.  Everything discussed in this thread is in the exhibition wall text.

In addition to Vanessa Jean’s “American Flag,” (which Bill mentions), viewers will also find Mark Andreas’s flag “Bound for Baghdad” and “Coping” a watercolor still life.  All three works appeared in the show in 2003, and all three were dropped off by Mark when he and Jeff visited Artspace earlier in the month.

Our archivist has also made the saved materials from “Duct Tape” and the 11 other exhibitions in this show available to the public for browsing.  The archive for “Interrupted Lives” is especially incredible, it is full of original documentation. 

If you cannot make it to Artspace, you can see an artist list and images from the show (first when it was at Erector Square, and second when it moved to Artspace) here:
https://artspacenewhaven.org/exhibitions/between-fear-and-freedom-duct-tape/

We are grateful to receive additions to our archive that help give a greater picture of the past.  Not everything is saved.

Here is the wall text:

Artists Jeffrey Benjamin and Mark Andreas conceived of the exhibition “Duct Tape: Between Fear and Freedom” in 2002, days after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a statement encouraging people to stock up on food, water, flashlights and duct tape.  This directive was emblematic of the Bush administration’s campaign to wage their so-called “war on terror”, a thinly veiled plan to increase U.S. military presence in the Middle East, the site of major oil reserves.

The exhibition actually happened in two parts, first in Benjamin and Andreas’s studios at Erector Square, and then at Artspace.  The exhibition moved to Artspace’s after Helen Kauder offered to help give the show greater visibility and a longer life.  When it moved to Artspace, the show maintained its uncensored and unjuried framework.  Anyone could contribute, and installations of all shapes…

posted by: sarahfritchey on June 28, 2017  7:48am

[continued]...and sizes flooded the galleries, including a duct tape tree that sprouted living flowers.

For the exhibition’s 2017 reprise, I was unable to connect with Benjamin or Andreas.  Artspace had lost touch over the years, as is the case with several of our early past curators and organizers who we hoped to involve.  Feeling the need to revisit this timely show, I broke the rules and invited Mohamad Hafez, a New Haven artist who was not in the original show.

I invited Hafez, an architect and artist, based on his knowledge of the built environment and the personal politics which guide his practice.  Hafez left Syria to attend University in the United States.  He lives and works in New Haven with his wife, and has not returned since the civil war began in 2011.  His detailed maquettes of bombed out Syrian cityscapes explore collective traumas that he does not frequently talk about.  He dedicates his work to communicating on behalf of refugees who are not as lucky as him to have resettled in a safe space. 

In addition to presenting a new piece from 2017 that depicts the President’s throne as a magnificent bathroom, (the figure’s face is a photoshopped portrait of several leaders in one image including western leaders and Saddam Hussain), and four dioramas created in 2008 that respond to “the war on terror” and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hafez provides viewers with a black board space. He invites viewers to add quotes from political leaders, which, like the statement that inspired Duct Tape, offer a free lesson in democracy. Hafez added the first quote—“Oh no, we’re not going to have casualties,” (G.W. Bush, 2003).

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 28, 2017  12:20pm

Thanks for the clarification, Sarah…it seems the ‘curators’ of the Duct Tape Show weren’t as difficult to ‘track down’ as stated in the article…..whose faux pas was this?

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 28, 2017  1:01pm

And thank you for admitting that you ‘broke the rules’ here, Sarah.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 28, 2017  9:11pm

So, just so everyone knows that I am interested in progress, not just tearing down the walls, I offer this excerpt from what is known as ‘THAT LUDD LETTER’ (coined by Pedro Martin DeClet, 2002….

“I coined the term Artocracy in about 18 months ago to describe the National Phenomena as much as the Local Situation.  Most cities these days have an arts establishment.  But they have nothing to do with art.

In general, they are frameworks for consolidating political spheres of influence, organizing self-congratulatory civic exercises and stalking horses for Economic Development. Somewhere on the priority list between free liquor and sweaty cheese, are paintings.  Artists don’t make the cut on this list at all.  The people that matter are Thoreau’s “Odd Fellows” who like to hand off checks in front of crowds…..

Economic Development and personal political power are fine exercises, but don’t call them Art.  Or, if you’re going to call them ‘art’ at least be Artful about it.  This is never the case with the Artocracy of New Haven.

Frankly, if I hear they are going to trot out the Flatfile again, I am going to puke.”

I sat down with Sarah Fritchey today and ‘turned over’ my file from CWOS 2002, which voices all of these concerns, and wound up with me on the short end of the New Haven Art Stick once again.

She read through 29 Pages (out loud, with questions), that I understand will be on display at this anniversary exhibit.

The detractors can think how they will.

Me and my cohorts have a real Philosophy about what art can look like in this town, and in fact, 2002 was an interesting ‘breaking point’ that only helped efforts like Ideat Village.

I thank Sarah for being open to my voice.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 29, 2017  1:03am

Also, I finally got to see the exhibit today…..

My critique is that I can’t believe so few artists are represented in 30 ‘operational’  years…...