For most of the 1800s if you wanted to go to “downtown” New Haven, that meant going to Long Wharf.
That’s where the then city’s center of commerce had spawned stores, taverns, and what today’s New Urbanists would call a very activated streetscape.
Uptown was, well, somewhere near boring old Yale College whose students cut loose when they went “downtown.”
That perspective-altering tidbit of New Haveniana emerges courtesy of vintage historical photographs that have now been ingeniously paired with contemporary works of art on paper.
The museum’s photo archive director, Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, went through more than 500 works by 150 or so contemporary artists in Artspace’s unframed Flatfile.
Bischoff-Wurstle (pictured) wanted to see what grabbed him, then make connections between these works and some of his favorites from the museum’s quarter-million images.
At a recent opening reception, Bischoff-Wurstle said he framed his search and his pairings around themes of evolving systems in a city such as parks and recreation, water, commerce, transportation, or, as in the case of Laura Watt’s gouache on paper, telecommunication.
When he came across Watt’s work, not only did the title, “Sound Systems Study #4 ” give a pretty solid hint, but the grid pattern of organized cacophony screamed “sound” to him.
The curator said he knew immediately he had to pair this image with the museum’s graphic holdings illustrating the pioneering 1878 telephone exchange located at what is now Chapel Street near State, and an image of a telephone directory, America’s first two such creations, which first emerged in our town.
Is the art illuminating the history or the history the art?
Bischoff-Wurstle said that the show, the most personal he has ever done at the museum, made sense because, for example, when he thought of sound waves, he imagined them as evoked in Watt’s graphic work.
It put him in mind of the waves that are invisibly passing by us all the time, which telephonic inventions, like Watt’s art, initially took leaps of imagination, faith, and entrepreneurship to come into the world. For example, the first telephone exchange had only 21 subscribers in the first year, he explained. The principals stuck with the invention and in the second year, the newfangled thing, more than doubled devotees to 50, he said.
At least that’s the theoretical underpinning Bischoff-Wurstle offered for the show’s linkings.
Yet there was no need to reach. Art and history side by side, even across different eras, go well together like cake and ice cream. Each serves as a kind of additional caption for the other and together the approach offers simple pleasures that have the potential to go deeper, depending on the viewer and his or her experience.
Some other pairings, like the telephone, were also instant, such as Janne Holtermann’s “Lots No. 2” (pictured), a pigment print that makes a long line of pedestrian shopping carts seem almost mystical.
In the commerce section of the exhibition Bischoff-Wurstle matched it with old photograph of the busy horse-drawn vans and wagons in Long Wharf, which was the commercial center of city life for most of the 19th century.
He said those old photos are among his favorites from the gazillions of New Haven historical images he has floating around in his mind.
To that pairing he added a contemporary photograph by Andrew Hogan of a parking lot in the Ninth Square.
That’s because the lot Hogan captures in the photo is quite close to what was Custom House Square, approximately where Water and State streets are today.
That’s where all the action took place after you hauled your goods up from Long Wharf, Bischoff-Wurstle added. Side by side the art and the photos showed the evolution of business and entrepreneurship over two centuries.
Even when the Bischoff-Wurstle’s highly subjective pairings are not as perky or as inventive, as in the case of an image of an old New Haven Water Company stone building with “Autumn, Branford Supply Pond,” a monotype collage by Aspasia Patti Anos (pictured), still the marriage of contemporary art and the archival make for interesting viewing. The mind and the eye are simultaneously engaged, each using the other as a reference or clue.
The collaboration resulting in Value Systems came about when Artspace won an impressive $100,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The assignment: To create 12 exhibitions over the next two years by which the holdings of the Flatfile—art works on paper unframed and unexhibited before— be given greater exposure.
With the grant Artspace contracted with Brooklyn, N.Y.-based firm, Peterson Rich Office to fabricate FOLD, a portable exhibition kiosk to showcase the works from the Flatfile.
FOLD debuted with four of the 12 artists’ work at the Thursday opening.
Everybody appears to benefit: “It’s a very contemporary object set against the colonial architecture [of the New Haven Museum],” said Artspace Executive Director Helen Kauder.
“That makes it immediately interesting,” she said.
The contemporary artists receive exposure to a new audience, get to see their works framed for the first time on the flexible, magnetic laminate panels of FOLD, and the works on paper are priced and are for sale.
Other artists not mentioned who are in the show include: Louise Barry, Gary Duehr, Julian Gilbert-Davis, Keith Johnson, Aurora Pellizzi, Amy Pryor, Kirsten Rae Simonsen, and Paul Theriault.
Bischoff-Burstle and Artspace Education Curator Martha Lewis will lead a tour of Value Systems on June 17 at 1:30 as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.