Students Make Artspace Their “Kingdom”

Chris Randall PhotosThe exhibition “Stages and Kingdoms of Exile”  —  the latest annual installment in which high-school artists take over Artspace, this year until Sept. 10 —  was the culmination of the students’ work over three weeks with lead teaching artist and acclaimed painter Wardell Milan as part of Artspace’s 2016 Summer Apprenticeship Program (SAP).

In addition to cultivating New Haven’s emerging visual art talent, the program helps groom the city’s crop of burgeoning actors and playwrights; these students were taught and mentored by hip hop poet and playwright Aaron Jafferis, Executive Artistic Director Dexter Singleton of Collective Consciousness Theatre, and Jeremy O. Harris, an incoming playwriting student at the Yale School of Drama.

New Haveners packed Artspacethe other to party for the show’s opening reception. The reception also feted the installation “49+ (For Orlando)” by artist, art historian, and Yale School of Art critic Jonathan Weinberg, commemorating the tragic massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and “Plant Material/Movie Collection,” by mixed media artist Noé Jimenez.

Attendees mingled, snacked on dried apples and yogurt, and sipped summery margaritas, all while viewing the dexterous artists’ powerful visual art and theatre. This year’s program theme encouraged students to investigate “the ways that identity is constructed in social space,” explore “non-conforming aspects of their identity through art,” and wrestle with notions of self-making, performance, and racial and sexual identity. In answer, the visual art students, with help from Artspace support staff, designed and built life-size stage sets in which the theatre students shaped their plays, while theatre students commissioned smaller works by their visual artist peers to adorn their sets. Milan and his studio assistant, artist Daniela Puliti, produced new work over the short three-week period and showed alongside their students — a unique feature of this art show. Harris also acted in one of his students’ plays.

Many visual art students produced work inspired by Milan’s use of collage. In the four images in “Girl in Drag,” the subject — Caden Rodems-Boyd, from Educational Center for the Arts — becomes adorned in makeup that contours his cheeks, fills and arches his eyebrows, and reddens his lips. Disembodied hands place a long, dirty blonde wig over his black hairnet and a baroque fur jacket replaces his gray t-shirt. The transformed figure in the final photo looks down imperiously on the viewer, appearing pale and stark due to the flash of the camera (wielded by Milan).

From a perpendicular wall, another subject — Ella Rodems-Boyd, also from ECA — wears a short, coiffed hairstyle, a checked button-down, and makeup, this time creating the illusion of a beard. This photo is entitled “Boy in Drag.” Both works scramble the pronouns “he/she” in the viewer’s mouth, forcing him, her, or them to see gender and gender expression as mere performance.

Ross Jacobson (Metropolitan Business Academy)  made a collage of VHS covers of classic 90s films. The work, “Untitled,” puns on the question of “nature versus nurture” in identity-making. The visible movie titles include Ghostbusters, Mr. Mom, The Princess Bride, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the center of the collage, several magazine cutouts capture extreme natural environments, landscapes alternately lush, arid, and volcanic. Separating the images from the movie covers is a border, rendered in an organic shade of red acrylic paint, that suggests a figure or a rock formation, or is perhaps deliberately amorphous.

In a joint painted collage by Katya Labowe-Stoll and Milan, a sexually and racially ambiguous nude figure fills the canvas. In a style reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture, the subject is physically identifiable as human — except for its six arms. Its stance, with arms raised and muscles flexed, body positioned confidently forward on top of what appears to be a mountain range, suggests that the figure is superhuman or even godly, perhaps deriving its power from its defiance of the constraints of gender and race classification.

The student-produced theatre was keenly attuned to the political issues of our current moment, containing sharp observations of our society. “Complexion” by Kayla Salters (Co-Op High School) took on the issue of colorism; a diverse cast presented a range of experiences with colorism and the discrimination and division it breeds.

Introducing another play, teaching artist Harris explained its connection to the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “That day,” Harris said, referring to the day of Castile’s murder, “I was a wreck. I couldn’t not talk about it.” Harris asked his students to pause their previous projects to respond to the murder in their writing. Four students — Rodems-Boyd, Keyonna Ann Jackson, Kayla Salters (Co-Op High School), and Kiyomi Bowen (Metropolitan Business Academy) — began a play that imagined the inner dialogues of Castile’s girlfriend and daughter, who were in the car with him when he was shot during a police stop. The young playwrights entitled their play “136,” referencing the 135 black men killed by police this year. Following this exercise, Harris said the four students asked permission to abandon their previous drafts and work on “136” as their final project. They couldn’t not write it.

Viewing the play “Untitled (Diptych),” written and acted by Melanie Jimenez (Metropolitan Business Academy), Jasmine Smith (Hillhouse High School), and Sophia Bruce (Wilbur Cross High School), was like watching a moving painting. The actors, intentionally positioned along a minimalist wooden set, presented a surreal narrative probing issues of beauty, body, and representation. The piercing dialogue penetrated the surface of conversations about feminine beauty to uncover their sometimes damaging subtext — namely, narrow perceptions of who, physically and racially, qualifies as beautiful.

Explicitly labeling their play as “very feminist,” Ella Rodems-Boyd (ECA), Juliette Ranelli (Wilbur Cross High School), and Leesandra Mendoza (Common Ground High School) presented the abstract production “Girls’ Survival Guide,” which centered on young women’s experiences with street harassment. The play saw two female characters entwined in a conversation and movement that searched for meaning in the harmful interactions to which male aggressors subject women in public space. The “Guide” broached themes of sexism, problematic notions of female virtue, and safety.

The annual SAP opening reception creates a rare space in New Haven for adults and young people to engage as peers. Students chatted with established artists, who took in the art as seriously as they would an artwork in any one of Artspace’s exhibitions. At the end of the evening, Milan awarded the students the stipends they had earned for their labor, adding a personal gesture or remark that gave attendees a taste of the connection he had forged with each. It was clear that the learning, mentorship, and opportunity to generate that students gained from their experience in the summer program would remain with them long after they graduated from apprentices to artists.

The exhibitions will remain on view at Artspace, at 50 Orange St., through Sept. 10.

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