As Secor Upson walked down an alley on his way to work, a circle caught him by surprise. As he kept walking, the circle became an ellipse; the forms rushed at him, as in a tunnel. “It’s almost like being born,” he said.
Upson had wandered into New Haven’s latest public art work in progress.
He had just dropped off his bike for repairs Tuesday morning and was walking down the alley on Chapel Street between College and Temple. Upson works at St. Raphael’s and is a Gateway nursing student. His busy life revolves around science; it has little time in it for art and gallery going.
“I’m only your local phlebotomist,” he said.
His unplanned viewing of Square with four circles (click on the play arrow to watch) evoked not only a personal wow, but a subtle response that would have pleased any artist.
Especially its creator, artist Felice Varini.
The internationally known and Paris-based Varini (pictured) has been in town for three weeks mounting the exhibit, his first U.S. work, commissioned by our local Site Projects New Haven. He is just about done.
Swiss-born Varini’s four circles and a square are done in rich red paint that fills the pedestrian passageway from Chapel to Temple on both walls and the façade of the Temple Street parking garage at its terminus.
As Upson discovered, the point of it is how the image changes as do the colors depending on your vantage.
Varini and his local assistant Daniel Proulx (who helped with the translations of Varini remarks below) have been at work since May 23, when with nocturnal hoopla they projected the outline on the walls and garage. A week later, with the help of booms and lifts, brushes, and rollers, the work is 95 percent done.
“My biggest surprise is the velocity,” said Varini. He was not surprised at how the image changes as you approach it, which was his intention. He is surprised by how much it changes and how fast.
That’s what Upson discovered as he walked from the beginning vantage, just a foot or so from Chapel, toward the garage. You can start anywhere; Proulx suggested a foot or so in from Chapel, where the lines lined up into the square. As you move toward them, they break up.
Varini is a convivial and genial man but he was also driven to finish a small section of the work. On Tuesday morning he had time to offer that, contrary to some of the press coverage on his work, he is not a performance artist; nor did he incorporate responses of admiring passersby into his work.
“I do painting on architecture,” he said. Meaning that he left the canvas in his studio. His new canvas is a building or a space. But he is the artist.
He said although he used only one color, the underlying color of the walls on the alleyway and the concrete on the parking garage made different colors or variants of the orange, and different shapes.
Why did he choose this location? The small street appealed to him. It was intimate, less traveled, and then, boom, there is the parking garage dominating the end of it like a lord of the manor.
“I really like contrasts,” he said. “It’s for that I chose this.”
He was making a comment neither on parking, one of New Haven’s grand themes, nor on America, although the contrast between the small and the gargantuan reflects his view of America, he offered.
Varini admires Jackson Pollock and the European Lucio Fontana, an early and formative influence. In 1962 Varini saw a work by Fontana, exhibited in his own native Locarno, Switzerland. In that work Fontana had cut the canvas within its frame, leaving a gaping slash. Young Varini was launched; he too left the canvas, slashed or unslashed, in the studio.
Other influences are the Americans Carl Andre and our local artistic hero Sol LeWitt, another conceptual artist.
There’s this difference: Whereas LeWitt’s work can be replicated by others who follow his detailed instructions, Varini won’t let anyone do the work but himself and his chosen assistants.
With the work mostly done now, Varini said, “I feel liberated.” He was very happy with his original conception.
Now the art-maker in Varini’s view is no longer Varini:“The architecture is making the abstract painting on the eye of the viewer.”
Like Secor Upson.
Before he went on to work, Upson the scientist kept on referring to Varini’s work as something on the cusp between the geometric and the emotional. “It’s like going into something. It’s so precise. It’s taking a monotonous little alleyway and turning it into a focal point.”
He said he always rides his bike through the alley without looking at his surroundings. That will change.
A separate but related work by Varini, Three black circles in air (pictured), is on view at the main branch of the public library, where Varini gave a public talk Wednesday morning. Photos of his earlier projects are on view at the Yale University Art Gallery. Paintings by students at Co-Op High related to Varini’s work are exhibited at the school at 210 College St.
A celebration of the completion of the new work, with speakers, tours, and festivities is scheduled in Temple Plaza Friday at 5 p.m.. As it’s public art, the party is open to the public, of course. The work will continue to be on view until 2011.