It takes a second to get your bearing. There’s a woman gazing out at you from Eric March’s canvas, stoic, angry, accusing. As your eye takes in the full image, you see that the funereal flowers aren’t below the woman; they’re floating on the waves lapping a sandy store. You, the viewer, aren’t standing upright. You’re floating in the air just over the waves, looking down. The woman is under the waves, looking up.
The piece is called Middle Passage, and it’s probably the first thing you’ll see when you walk into the Kehler Liddell Gallery on Whalley Avenue for “How With This Rage Shall Beauty Hold a Plea?” a 53-artist exhibit about art and political outrage running now through May 27.
That New Haven’s artists have responded to our current political environment isn’t in doubt. Even the prospect of Trump’s election was enough to create a protest song that took on new urgency with his victory. Mirroring political protests and the actions of artists nationwide, Nasty Women Connecticut kicked into gear and has been going strong since. Countless concerts and art exhibits have taken on an unapologetically political bent, raising money for organizations like IRIS and Planned Parenthood that find themselves in opposition to the Trump administration’s priorities. New Haven’s arts scene is united in its outspoken anger. (In fact, if there are any pro-Trump artists out there who might be interested in talking about that, these brave souls are encouraged to contact me.)
The question is what to do with that anger, which gets at a deeper, perennial question about art that comes up every time there’s a budget discussion about arts funding. What is the purpose of art? Does art have a responsibility to respond to politics, to societal problems? If so, how? Is art that doesn’t respond directly just escapism, or is it a form of catharsis? It’s often said that art is about inviting reflection, about broadening our perspective, about giving us the bigger picture, reminding us what’s important. In the heaviest political times — say, Shostakovich composing music in the maw of two annihilating totalitarian regimes, music that would be performed by a starving orchestra during the siege of Leningrad in 1942 — does art play a vital role in reminding us of our humanity? Or do you finally put down your instrument, your paintbrush, your pen, and join the French Resistance like Samuel Beckett did during World War II, because, as he put it, “you simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded?” Or is the broader truth somewhere in between, something else? For artists, what are their individual truths?
In taking on these thorny questions, “How With This Rage” succeeds in getting the pieces to talk to each other louder than they might otherwise, and speak up more than they would on their own. Liz Alpert Fay’s Dream House Tree House gains urgency in the context of the gallery. Her house is a refuge. It’s easy to imagine it having no electrical power, and thus no sustained connection to the internet, to the news cycle — to anything beyond what the occupants can see out the window. It seems clear that Fay isn’t advocating unplugging entirely. After all, she’s participating in this very exhibit. But her piece suggests that sometimes it’s OK, and maybe even a good idea, to step back sometimes, for an evening, for a day, for a week. To take a rest, and return with fresh eyes and new energy.
Similarly, a formal exercise becomes a political act in Sheldon Krevit’s Transcending the Blues. The abstract painting doesn’t necessarily convey meaning, nor does it have to. Its title offers a glimpse of the artist’s frame of mind regarding the piece, and possibly while creating it. Fay finds strength in building and aesthetically visiting a physical place. Krevit focuses on the process of creating art, finding strength in the time out to make it, and in the contemplation of the results.
Riffing off of those ideas, Alan Shulik turns to explicitly political ends. In WTC — September 11, 2001, he makes the images of the towers into reflecting pools, akin to the pools at the 9/11 memorial in New York City built in the footprints of the towers themselves. It’s a reminder of the moment of reflection that the destruction of the towers in the terrorist attack allowed. Was it ever fully taken advantage of? Were we kinder to our neighbors afterward? Or did we become more fearful? How much of the havoc from that day continues to reverberate today, and in what ways?
In Rapt, however, Julie Fraenkel warns of the dangers of reflecting too much, of the ways that contemplation can be a trap. It’s a vigorous idea, regardless of what it applies to in the context of the entire exhibit. It’s one thing to take refuge, to take a break from the fight. It’s quite another to exempt yourself altogether. But the idea also holds a warning when applied to the fight itself. Is being glued to the news cycle and commenting on it constantly on social media just another form of self-absorption? And how do we break out of that? What reactions can we have that don’t leave us on floor, but get us to stand up and do something?
And what do we do?
The artists’ participation in the project is one kind of response. In this reporter’s humble opinion, it’s never a bad idea to get people, regardless of their political persuasion, to stop and think for a minute, or stop and feel something. Several pieces in the exhibit, however, suggest paths forward.
Leila Dow’s Mandalay Out of Balance at first comments on a vertiginous sense of chaos. The circle, the symmetry, that usually comprises a mandalay is nowhere to be found. There’s no obvious order, so sense of focus or direction. But breaking down the traditional geometry leads Dow to an image that looks more like a natural landscape—rivers, hills, mountains. Maybe there’s no order, but that doesn’t mean there’s no direction, no sense of flow, and we can find it if we stop trying to put things back the way they were and start moving into the way they could become.
And in this moment where things look to be a breaking point for many people, there is an opportunity to create a new narrative, a new mythology, out of the old one. Eric Durant’s Artemis pulls an old story into modern context. In Greek mythology, Artemis was a hunter goddess, and resolutely a virgin. In one story, a man tries to rape her and she kills him. End of story. Artemis is a deity who doesn’t take any crap. Sculptures of Artemis from art history typically depict her as nearly in mid-flight, full of power, bow drawn, arrow to string. Durant’s Artemis is tired, worn out. She’s been fighting for a long time. Even her hunting dog is exhausted.
But the most startling of Durant’s changes is to give Artemis a gun — and to suggest in the stance of the figure that she’s not afraid to use it. She holds it with complete familiarity, just as she held her bow and arrow in the past. Something in her expression suggests that she’s about to use the weapon for something, or maybe she just did. Whatever the case, her finger is on the trigger. As much as the world has changed, and it has changed so much, some things are still worth defending.
“How With This Rage Shall Beauty Hold a Plea?” runs at Kehler Liddell Gallery, 873 Whalley Ave., through May 27. Visit the gallery’s website for hours and more information.