As visitors entered the Ely Center of Contemporary Art for the center’s latest exhibit, they were offered copies of the Bill of Rights reproduced on white printer paper — giving a pointed political edge to the opening night of an already inherently political show. The reproduction of the historic document echoed the abundant reproduction of another American icon that was present: the American flag.
The show, titled “Broad Stripes and Bright Stars” — running until Aug. 13 and curated by Dave Coon and Aicha Woods — seeks to explore the use of the flag in its many iterations and significances as it ranges across both floors of the Ely Center on Trumbull Street and covers nearly all available wall space. Either in traditional or metamorphosed form, the flag is present in every work, by 80 different artists, spanning myriad media and messages. Natalie Baxter’s plush sculptures in one room feature twisted and adorned flags in golds, pinks, and light blues, while Annie Thornton’s flag in another is a mere remnant of one burned and encased in resin. All together, it provides an exhaustive catalogue of artists in dialogue with the American flag.
For Woods and Coon, the show has been a long time in the making. Woods cited the period following 9/11, when the flag “started appearing in a really intense ubiquitous way,” as the impetus for the show. Given the current political climate, and the upcoming Fourth of July, the two decided it was “a good moment” to finally bring it together.
Though according to Woods, the two have also “tried to take a very neutral stance.” Rather than create a narrative that leans toward one perception or interpretation of the flag, they allowed artists speak for themselves, to explore the “totem-like quality of the flag.” What happens when a symbolic object and artwork in itself is further reproduced in art and made ever more consumable? What additional meanings does it gain? What meaning does it lose?
“When you practice art, sooner or later the flag shows up in your work,” Coon states.
Among the striped and starred works in the show is a piece by local artist Destiny Palmer, a graduate of Hamden High School and ECA and a recent MFA graduate of Temple University, where she studied painting. Palmer’s work follows her background in painting, but replaces the paint with fabric. Expanses of blue and beige stretch across an imposing wooden frame only to be interrupted by crisscrossing fabric striped with red, white, and blue with white stars, with other textiles layered above. The piece is something of an abstracted American flag, one that has been wed to other materials significant to Palmer’s work and practice, such as a delicate fabric in one corner that suggests the fabric of a dress.
“My ancestors were owned in South Carolina,” Palmer asserts. To interact with the flag, then, is a much more complicated and immediate issue of identity for Palmer than for many artists in the show. With the history that she has, she looks to ask “what does it mean to be prideful?”
From Independence to Codependence?
“Broad Stripes and Bright Stars” occurs as the Ely Center moves into an uncertain future. Constructed in 1905, the building was the home of John Slade Ely, a figure at the Yale School of Medicine and his wife Grace T. Ely, who was an active member of the community. The house was left as a public arts center following Grace’s death in 1960, and its first exhibition was held in 1961. The house continued to function as one of the founding centers of the New Haven arts community for years after, operating under a trust.
Eventually the trustees disappeared until only one remained — Wells Fargo — which attempted to liquidate the house and transform it from an operating foundation, which uses its income and resources to put on its own events and programming, to a grantmaking foundation, which provides resources to external organizations. At this possibility, curator Jeanne Criscola, who is now the chair of the Friends of John Slade Ely Center of Contemporary Art Foundation, decided to contact the attorney general in Hartford. Her goal was to represent “the artists and culture makers who have been a part of this for 56 years.”
Following a strong response from the community and after hearings in court, the Ely Center was purchased from Wells Fargo by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), the organization that runs ECA. The proceeds from the sale went into a new trust, and the house was saved from losing its connection to the arts (read our previous coverage here).
The Ely Center’s position as an arts hub thus remains undisputed, but its future as an independent public arts center is precarious. Through its purchase by ACES, there exists the possibility of the house being used as an extension of the ECA campus. Criscola emphasized the house’s position in the community and its need to not be lost, while noting that a compromise might be to one day give up part of the house and keep perhaps the first floor as a public arts space.
Until then, the Ely Center will continue to put on public programming like “Broad Stripes and Bright Stars,” which joins a roster of 22 events that have occurred in the house since its revitalization last year.
In an ideal future, Criscola sees the Ely Center helping to bring the arts community in New Haven together, and hopes to develop a model of collaboration and interaction with other arts centers in the city. She wants organizations to work together rather than operate in competition with each other, and believes that the Ely Center can lead this movement.
“I grew up in New Haven, and this is important to me,” she said. “This is where the arts district in New Haven grew up.”
“Broad Stripes and Bright Stars” runs through Aug. 13 at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art, 51 Trumbull St. For more information about the exhibition, click here.