Peek Through The Window For A Little Hope

A local art school that’s closed in August wants you to look only through the windows at its two summer exhibits.

The two exhibits—designed for outside-in viewing—are up at the Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street. The building is locked, but the exhibits are open.

Together, the exhibits—Shelby Head‘s Interplay, installed in CAW’s two-story high Hilles Gallery; and its minuscule sister, the Tiny Gallery comprised of three ascending glass boxes in CAW’s advertising totem pole that houses the work of sculptor Susan McCaslin—tell a cautionary tale.

Head’s waving hoses and circling concertina wire-looking shapes along with McCaslin’s diorama’s of human smallness don’t cheer. That seems somehow right for this month of grim bulletins of war and other seemingly intractable mountains for humans to climb.

They’re also surprising, and worth a visit. Just don’t try to get in.

Each August CAW selects an artist whose work is nicely graspable from the window, as the gallery and school are on hiatus for much of the month. Click here for last summer’s window installation at City Gallery on Upper State Street. And here for last summer’s installation at the Hilles Gallery, which was an edition of the outside portrait gallery, Inside Out New Haven.

Sculptor Shelby Head has written that her aim with her site-specific installation is to use the materials and their groupings and repetitions to “mirror some of the groundbreaking qualities in bebop jazz” with its AABA song form.

“As one moves around the space, each component of the installation influences and relates to another in similar ways musicians will play off one another.”

Absent knowing this intention, however, and maybe because you can’t physically move among the hoses, rectangles of painted surface and torn out book pages because the room is closed, this viewer received a decidedly different and non-musical first impression.

Maybe it’s just because of the “world on fire” background of our headlines of war and mayhem this August—I found Head’s hoses not groovy and musical, but evocative of instruments of torture. Likewise the patterns of lariat-like circles that have the texture—as seen from outside the window—of concertina wired.

If a caretaker were to let me in this place, this art, with the substantial, heavy, serpentine hoses attacking the swatches of color and words, would put me on my guard.

Ironically, the cramped spaces of the Tiny Gallery’s three ascending boxes offer more hope. Not that offering hope should be art’s mission—as it is with, say, religion 00 but we’re looking for those rays more and more these days, even at closed window galleries.

McCaslin works in lots of mediums, often large scale, and has deployed boulders and big overcoats. She likes to explore the depiction of space.

She said working in three ten-by-ten-by-17-inch boxes under glass was a unique opportunity “for working smaller while projecting something large.”

What she’s projected, I think, is an exploration not only of space but of human possibility, with a sense of hope as we ascend.

Each box contains rocks, small, basic human figures, and, in the middle, sticks and other artifacts.

In the bottom vitrine there’s a human alone, his [or her] back to a giant rock, which is leaning slightly. The odds don’t look good.

We climb to the second box and there is a human too, more indistinct [maybe confused], but also some sticks [fire?] and a page of text [civilization?]. Here the rocks look broken up, as if the humans are using them, advancing.

At the tippy top box of the Tiny Gallery (pictured) we see another figure, whitish in color, maybe marble, highly advanced compared to the shape and textures of the lower figures; here the rocks have also been reconfigured. There’s not a single overwhelming stone, as in the bottom, but several boulders, balanced precariously.

McCaslin, who also says she likes to tell stories visually, has told a good one here: the ascent—well, maybe it’s an ascent—of human civilization. Yet, based on that upper box’s tale, final success is still a toss-up.

I know I’m being far too literal here,and contrary to the artists’ expressed intentions.

Yet maybe that’s what happens when you look at art through a window in the dog days of a grim August.

Still, what I found also surprised me: How the artistic contents of a large, airy space can make you feel like closing down and how a small space can, well, at least hold out the hope of expansiveness.

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