Art Presents Its Case

Allan Appel PhotoAt the Institute Library on Chapel Street, they’ve got the evidence. They’ve got the perpetrators, too — the artists themselves. They’ve even got some of the accomplices.

Yet they have no crime. Just engaging thought provoking art, including a 25-foot long braid of dryer lint.

That’s the forensic report thus far from “Evidence,” the engaging new show at The Institute Library with the premise that lots of artists collect stuff as a kind of visual proof, trail, or evidence of the undertaking of a creative act — to paraphrase the show’s curator, Martha Willette Lewis.

Works of painting, photography, mixed media, sculpture, book arts, and installation by nine artists will be, as it were, deliberating among themselves on how to make the invisible visible, the ineffable a little more audible, and the world we pass through every day a little more interesting.

No decision is due until Sept. 2, when the show closes. The artists themselves will be available for interrogation at the show’s opening reception Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m.

Howard el-Yasin has been a collector and exhibitor of all kinds of stuff for years — hair, fabric, banana skins, old shoes, and lint, both industrial and domestic, which he keeps separate.

For “Evidence,” el-Yasin has created “Displaced,” a site-specific noodle or long braid of lint, which he has sewn together, mixing and matching different colors, so that you practically bump into its beginning and ending segments as you circulate through the library’s third-floor gallery space.

When I told el-Yasin that I indeed had bumped into the lint, he averred that part of the point is for visitors to become aware of our own presences in a new way as we confront this material and for it to have a visceral impact.

The lint is “toxic and also beautiful in a raw context,” el-Yasin said. The strand also puffs out nasty dust so that “Evidence” will feature, thanks to el-Yasin, the only art opening I’ve ever heard of where surgical masks will be provided.

Gallery PhotoAn essential part of el-Yasin’s installation also features, like that of any good detective, a careful report: the meticulous listing and cataloging, including name and address, of each of the scores of his lint contributors over the years.

“They are as much contributors to this work as I am,” el-Yasin said. He even offered an interested reporter to become a contributor of what is a kind of intimate waste product of one’s lifestyle.

And again, that was one of el-Yasin’s points. Some sections of the braid have bobby pins, for example, and it makes one wonder. “I try to maintain as much of the detritus as possible, while at the same time creating an object that has a presence in its own right,” he said.

“You’ve got not one, but two shmutz things in the show ... what do you think evidence is?” quipped Lewis, who has both a down-to-earth and fun relationship to the material as well as a vigorous intellectual take.

She was referring to the work of Meredith Miller, whose day job is the intake photographer of books new to the collections at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Miller photographs the smudges the books leave on the felt background she has set up and several of her works are in the show, looking more like astronomical scientific data than shmutz.

You won’t know it without studying it carefully, but Joan Fitzimmons is presenting large archival ink jet prints of different yogurts whose residues began intriguing her years ago. She began with photographing what was left of her favorite personal flavors, streaks left in the bowl that reminded her of paint strokes. She moved to buying junky other brands full of red-dye colored yogurts, because she liked the hues. Eventually she layered her yogurt residues with an array of the crusty spoons she was using.

Fitzsimmons now sees in them all of art history unfurling, which is why she termed her series “Small and Large Thoughts.”

Lewis sees in them, among other things, traces of the decay of one form — a food product — giving rise to something else, namely art.

Also, as in a forensic situation, the blown-up photographs allow you to see what has not been noticed before, Lewis added. Or as Fitzsimmons put it, “I photograph because I don’t feel I understand until I see them.”

“Evidence” also features the arresting pinhole photographs of Colin Burke. On view are very long-exposure photographs of what turn out to be sunlight crossing a clearing and other such scenes, as if Burke’s work were evidence presented from hidden cameras, only the subject of the investigation is nature and time themselves.

One of Burke’s cameras fell over into the water, and the resulting droplets appeared on the image and pleased Lewis. “This is not only making a picture, but about the process itself,” she said.

Evidence of actual crimes — the crimes of war as perpetrated on children — also, alas, appear in “Evidence.” In the early 1990s, when the war in Bosnia was raging and the city of Sarajevo was under brutal siege, the Soros Foundation funded a pen pal project for letters to be written by kids in Sarajevo and to be delivered to American kids to write back.

Graphic designer Jeanne Criscola created a heartbreaking illustrated book, Dear Unknown Friend: Children’s Letters from Sarajevo, and recruited photographer Linda Lindroth to do 31 rare, huge-sized Polaroid images of some of those letters. The combined book and photographs circulated briefly in Eastern European countries, and now are being shown for the first time in New Haven, said Criscola.

Not only are the original letters now lost, Criscola said, but they never got to any American kids to reply. The kids in Sarajevo who wrote them, if they survived, are now 20 years old, and no one knows where they are.

The show, in all, represents a very promising new active thematic collaboration between Lewis and the Institute library, with future shows also dealing with books, narrative, and how stories are told.

To make that point, the library’s executive director, Valerie Garlick, was happy to bring up to the gallery a dozen or so book from the collection that speak to investigation, evidence, body parts, and the like.

Other artists in the show include Mac Adams, Fritz Horstman,  and Jiehao Su.

Lewis’s next show at the Institute Library, in the fall, will be called “The Plot Thickens.” It will focus on narrative fiction in art and feature lots of collage and assemblage.

In other good news from The Institute Library, Garlick said that a new tenant has signed to rent the library’s ground-floor store: It will be a vintage clothing store run by Carol Orr, owner of the nearby English Building Market, with a ribbon to be cut in July.

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