From now until May 31, as you browse the shelves of the Institute Library on Chapel Street, you may find your eye drawn to a bloom of color along the library’s main thoroughfare. A pair of pen-and-ink drawings, one all serenely flowing shapes, the other frenetic activity. Other bright bursts of paint appear at the ends of the library’s stacks, like the last chocolate in the box.
Then, as if your eyes have adjusted to a new light, you start to see ways that the art and the library — one of the vibiest spaces in the city — merge, so that it’s hard to tell sometimes which things are part of the art exhibit and which are just features of the library itself. And that’s when the title of the exhibit — “Looking Then Reading” — suddenly makes sense.
Curated by Noe Jimenez and Maria Shevelkina and featuring art by Jimenez, Frank Bruckmann, Steven DiGiovanni, Daniel Eugene, John Keefer, Barbara Marks, Susan McCaslin, Amy Vensel, and Heather Hill Young, “Looking Then Reading” both further enlivens the already visually rich Institute Library and effectively blurs the line between the art and the place to the point that the library itself can seem like an enormous art installation. Which, as it turns out, can feed the need to read.
Vensel’s, Jimenez’s, and Marks’s small, flashy pieces, placed strategically throughout the library’s space, catch the eye first. Finding them can feel pleasantly like a scavenger hunt, even when they’re hiding in plain sight, drawing attention first to themselves, and then to the book-laden architecture that surrounds them.
Others are arranged almost like set pieces. Is the sewing machine, its table, and the accompanying chair part of the piece, or was it there before the art arrived? (Note also the clever use of HVAC unit as place to mount Heather Hill Young’s Prussian Blue (largest).
Meanwhile, the real plants in the library lead seamlessly enough to the tree in John Keefer’s Untitled that the luminous glow behind the tree in the painting can seem like the sky, seen through a canvas window.
Daniel Eugene’s intricate drawings encouraged lingering in a corner of the library’s back room closer to the shelves. Which meant that — as the title of the exhibit suggested — certain titles in the Institute Library’s idiosyncratic collection caught the eye that might not otherwise.
For instance, there was Men and Pandas, a 1966 book by Ramona and Desmond Morris that, the introduction explained, was part of a series of books (others in the series were Men and Snakes and Men and Apes) about humankind’s relationship with certain animals. In the Morris’s writing, pandas weren’t too different from the contemporary Beatles. “Thirty years ago the western world had encountered nothing more than stuffed specimens in a few museums. Then, in a series of dramatic moves, the giant pandas arrived. They came to America and Europe. The public saw them and were conquered. The chubby, clumsy, black-and-white form quickly became a national and then international image. Still largely a mystery beast, this fascinating animals swiftly rose to the top of the animal popularity charts, and there it has remained ever since.”
On another shelf was the striking book design for Peaceable Lane, by Keith Wheeler — a 1960 novel about an African-American artist moving into a white enclave in suburban New York — right alongside the compellingly titled The Eunuch of Stamboul, by Dennis Wheatley, a 1935 thriller about an Englishman caught up in political intrigue in Istanbul. What else lurks on the library’s shelves? The art suggests that taking a closer look might yield another spark, amusing or profound, but at least unexpected.
Susan McCaslin’s 1,000 Postcards blurs the lines even further — between art, library, and us. Described as “a project with no end-date in sight,” Postcards has been installed right at the entrance to the Institute Library, making it easy at first to just walk by. It looks almost like it has always been there, and that it’s part of the library’s business. But those aren’t punch cards in the slots of the shelving on the wall; they’re postcards McCaslin has made herself. They are “my notations, my recordings, my places yet to visit,” she writes. “They are my statements, my invitations, and moments from my life. You are invited to browse through my cards, returning them to cubbies in no particular order.”
As in the Institute Library itself, it’s worth it to browse, as McCaslin’s postcards combine the mundane and mysterious in compelling ways. On the side of one card, McCaslin has made a quick sketch of a group of people, a woman, a man, and two boys — it’s tempting to say it’s a family — on the shore of a body of water. A small boat has been pulled up behind them, and there’s a bridge in the background. McCaslin provides a caption: “1955: The Connecticut River.” On the other side of the card is a black-and-white photograph of men building a pipeline across a flat plain. Line and plain stretch to the horizon. McCaslin has pasted a cutout from something else in the upper-left corner: “Page 208.” The number 64 is pasted into the lower left corner. Then there’s a message written on the photograph itself — whether McCaslin wrote it or found the picture already written on is impossible to say. In any case, it reads: “Pipeline: 1943. Get ready — Jacob —”
One side of another card has a map describing a travel circuit, from Ossining (in New York) to Roxbury to Litchfield to Branford and back again, with stops in between. There’s a plate, a cup, and a fork in the middle of it. On the other side, there’s a sketch of a nude woman.
Like real postcards, they don’t feel random, but they’re also tantalizingly undecipherable. They feel almost intrusive to look at — if they’re postcards, we’re reading someone else’s mail — and yet the full meanings aren’t clear. Most of the postcards are like this, whether the images are of trees, birds, and houses, or of abstract shapes, statues of idols, or tiny collages.
But take all of the postcards in their cubbies as a whole, and they add up to a card catalog of a life. McCaslin’s work is deliberate, a “project.” But such a collection could be made for anyone. The postcards, emails, texts, receipts, shopping lists, pictures on our phones, notes left on the kitchen table, all together could represent the codes to decipher and explore the libraries of our lives. To strangers, all these details would be like trails of bread crumbs, hints of substance. Only the people who know us would be able to read them and know what they mean.