Different Boxes

Connecticut’s Inventive Galleries

By: STEPHEN VINCENT KOBASA

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Stealing would prove the point. There are commercial galleries everywhere that could be toured in succession, with a visitor taking a single work from each and replacing it with one filched from the previous one, then returning at the end to the first gallery with the stolen piece from the last. Would anyone notice?

In Connecticut, one can find a remarkable number of exceptions to this caricature of the conventional.

An emblem of community renewal, the Five Corners Gallery is at the center of an effort to preserve the architectural fabric of Torrington, replacing its vanished industrial past with an engaging cultural present. Established less than a year ago at the literal crossroads of the city, in a former Singer sewing machine store with its precise checkerboard tile floor and tin ceiling, it is, according to director Judith McElhone, a place meant to create a sense of “possibility where it did not seem to exist before.” McElhone is also a working artist, a pairing of identities that is common to many of these less-traditional galleries. Her expectation is for work that is “contemporary, professional, varied, and accessible.” This might read as a potential cliché, yet the execution of it so far has been anything but, since it has meant showing work like the precious and dangerous sculpture of Joy Wulke.

Terri Smith, executive director of Stamford’s Franklin Street Works, confesses that she “did not really know who our audience would be” when the gallery opened in 2011, and that it is “not until you start doing things” that you discover who they are. From its beginning it has been a magnet where the city and the arts can encounter each other in a way that is always “very much about action.” People have gone from being “weirded out” to comparing current exhibitions with previous ones while anticipating the next. Within the transformed domestic space of an urban row house (demanding, yet inviting), work is presented on a human scale. The site’s accumulating history of both conversation and display presents Smith’s clear argument that “exhibition-making is an artistic enterprise” in itself.

For more than three years, the unexpected frame of a metal storage container in a Danbury industrial park has evolved into something more than the sculptor Jim Felice imagined, becoming a refuge where artists are “free to do whatever they need to do outside all the gallery bullshit.” His intention is to provide an “opportunity in a way that I wish I had.” He recognizes how difficult it can be in the current art world for younger artists to gain access to exhibition space. And so, he says, you offer the gift. For Katie Bassett who was showing an interrelated series of works fashioned from cut and braided plastic trash bags, creating an environment ominous in the fashion of a Monty Python torture chamber, there is more to the gift. She has found in Felice a mentor, not just a landlord who provides a physical space.

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Above top: Graffiti art by Kenny Hess A.K.A. YEDI FRESH, Trailer Box Gallery, Danbury, CT. Photo: Joy Bush. Above bottom: Franklin Street Works, Stamford, CT. VHS The Exhibition. Photo: Sean Hemmerle.

The Nest Arts Factory is the most recent form of a dozen-year long project that embraces a variety of functions, from exhibition space to studio rental to music recording. For its director, David Flynn, the building’s site on a Bridgeport city bus route gives it an immediate geography of local involvement, and he has worked to form alliances with the larger community. Here, urban anger can find an alternative voice in art that Flynn identifies as “so current, so fresh, so poignant about the world right now.” In this location, artists can begin, he says, thinking about the invisible architecture of the city, and the ways in which memory can haunt a place, as it did for the mayor of Bridgeport who, when he visited, remembered that his mother had worked there.

Connecticut’s north/south Route 7 can be both a nightmare of traffic and a landscape of grace. The Seven Arts Gallery sits at one of its busier intersections in a small building. Its crannies of space have been reconfigured as a small puzzle palace that reveals itself along one side of a narrow corridor. Another working artist whose time is stretched by the additional responsibility of running a gallery, Paul Fernandez-Carol says he is motivated by being able to reach out to artists who are underrepresented, especially those working in the pop surrealist mode, as does Scott Teplin, who had a collection of wonderfully frenzied drawings on view. Content to realize enough income to cover the expenses of rent and maintenance, Fernandez-Carol acknowledges that lavish parties and rich collectors are not a realistic expectation. The gallery is “more of a passion” that can thrive within the unexpected diversity of its location, as surprised motorists and truckers swerve into the narrow parking area at the gallery’s front.

While David Borawski’s studio is in Hartford, his ATOM Space Gallery might be anywhere. The first location of his hit-and-run style was a vacant ATM vestibule that was
visible 24 hours a day, seven days a week—until the building was sold and the show
vanished. His point is always to pull something together quickly, to stir things up, even if a space has only one electrical outlet with ten extension cords that keep blowing a fuse.

He loves looking at art as much as he does making it, and his curating is motivated by
the concise desire “to put these artists in the same room.” His own work provokes a similar interest in others, since he was soon to show in a space called the Dirt Salon. I had never heard of it, but one thing I already know: Nothing can be stolen from it and then replaced from elsewhere with something entirely the same.

Stephen Vincent Kobasa is a writer, curator, and contributing editor to Art New England. His work has been published in the New Haven Independent, Big, Red and Shiny, Artes, and the Hartford Advocate.



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