Towner Art Gallery and Seven Sisters

I arrived yesterday into Heathrow and after a fairly speedy experience through passport control, hopped into a car and headed for the two-hour excursion to Eastbourne. I’m here again in England (after two weeks at home) for a fabulous docent trip through Sussex. We’re staying at the amazing Grand Hotel Eastbourne, and after just one night, it’s hard to imagine staying at any hotel with less than five stars (at least, when traveling for business!)

Grand Hotel Eastbourne – don’t stay anywhere else!

The Towner Art Gallery was a great way to start this week-long trip with our YCBA docents. They have a very robust educational program that is fully integrated into the museum — from the display of local K-12 student art in their Draw Me In exhibition to tours of storage for students, it’s all there. They have a rotating gallery space that the director, Joe Hill, told us he wants to be curated by artists, taxi drivers, and environmental activists from nearby Brighton. What a breath of fresh air!

The entire bespoke building exudes creativity and accessibility, from the sensory room to the comfy benches in the elevators. Sure, we have a library. But they have a study space with books from curators’ individual libraries. Imagine both the general public and specialized curators reading the same books! There’s so much to appreciate and admire at the Towner Art Gallery, and I left feeling inspired and ready to take some of these ideas back to the YCBA.

After the Towner Art Gallery, we hopped in the bus for the trek to the Seven Sisters. There were sheep. There was wind. There were incredible vistas and pieces of wool flying around. Overall, a breathtaking (literally) experience.

Reluctant anglophile

Never in my wildest dreams (which must be pretty tame), did I ever think I would become a budding anglophile. For pretty much my whole life, I was told that England was “boring” by my father — the “Reynolds” of “Reynolds-Kaye” comes from him. Am not sure if this was some sort of rejection of his grandfather’s homeland or just a predilection for the warmer and more “exotic” climates of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, but in the end, it meant that I really had very little interest in anything British.

Edwardian Tea Room at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

I was never one of those girls who read Jane Austen books and had the mildest infatuation with Prince William as a pre-teen. Shakespeare to me meant Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and even in college and graduate school, you never saw me in a British art history class — or, actually, they never offered that on the West Coast. As an adult, I did my best to become respectable and tried to get into Downton Abbey and the Great British Bake Off. I still associate fancy china, actual silverware, and brass knobbed wooden desks (like the one I’m writing on) as simply not for me.

Yet yesterday, I was seated at an extremely long table with white linen and silver candelabra with actual flames flickering off the tapered white ends of hand-poured candles. Eating off actual china with eight piece of differently sized forks, spoons, and knives in front of me. Along with our YCBA docents, I tucked into a two-hour three-course meal with decaf English Breakfast to top off a delicious meal.

First night dinner of the Docent Trip to England in the Arlington Room of the Grand Hotel Eastbourne

And the most shocking part of it all? I felt totally at home. If there’s one thing that working at the YCBA will do, it will be to turn you into a reluctant anglophile. Yes, I admit it. This California girl is embracing her British blood alongside the Japanese and French sides. Sure, “British” still doesn’t seem “exotic” to me, but at least it’s more comfortable than it was before. I’m learning to take joy in a good strong cuppa, embrace manage the awkward and overstated politeness, and appreciate British art — which, after all, was Paul Mellon’s goal to begin with.

Congratulations, Papa Mellon. You’ve done it. With me, at least.

Fred Wilson: Afro Kismet at Pace Gallery

Six framed prints from Fred Wilson's "Afro Kismet" show at Pace Gallery

Six framed prints from Fred Wilson’s “Afro Kismet” show at Pace Gallery

When we first moved to New Haven over 4 years ago, one of the recurring selling points was that it was “only an hour and a half from New York.” At the time, I didn’t think that was a very compelling reason to uproot my then 8-month old twin boys and our lives in San Diego, but over time, I’ve definitely seen it as a crucial benefit. The proximity of New York – New Haven has definitely made it possible for me to see shows at galleries and museum that I otherwise would not have been able to see. Some of my favorite memories of working at the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art have been the days out of the office with colleagues on day-trips to the NYC. Whether to network with new colleagues, check out British artists, hangout with our Yale-Smithsonian Bartels Intern at the NMAI, or present at conferences, I have had a ton of reasons to come to New York and great memories that I carry back with me on the Metro-North.

The summer is a great – though hot – time to come to NYC, and while most of the major exhibitions seem to have closed and galleries are on hiatus, there were two good reason to make the trek: Fred Wilson’s Afro Kismet at the Pace Gallery and John Akomfrah’s Signs of Empire at the New Museum. Am in between the two shows enjoying an Earl Grey and chocolate chip cookie at the New Museum, and haven’t had a chance to see the Akomfrah. The Fred Wilson show, however, was really, really cool. Fred Wilson has been a touchstone for me since I first learned about “Mining the Museum,” and his work has been a consistent reference point the way I think about art, institutional critique, and museums. When my boss, Linda, encouraged me to see the show, I took her up on the offer.

For me, there were two highlights:

(1) his juxtaposition between African objects and European oil paintings.This totally reminded me of both Pedro Lasch’s Black Mirror / Espejo Negro¬†and Demian Flores’ Deconstruction of a Nation / Deconstruccion de una nacion, both of which I wrote about in a short e-misferica article, in which I actually mention Wilson. So I’m coming full circle here, 4 years later, in New York. I kept wondering why he chose to bring these specific African sculptures together with these European paintings – were they made at the same time? Did they have a similar visual register? Was there a geographic specificity to them? The exhibition text was sparse and I’m hoping the catalog will help me answer some of these questions.

(2) his overlay of parchment or wax paper so that the majority of the image was obscured except for the little ovals that highlighted the black figures in the image. I really enjoyed this subtle way of emphasizing the figure of African descent, as it emphasized the global reach and specifically Turkish context in which many Africans were visually registered. That said, they sometimes seemed very shadowy figures, and by not clearly viewing the context, it made it difficult to understand what role that figure had in the image. Were they always in a negative, downgraded position in servitude or in the shadows, or is there any counter-reading available that could see their very presence a form of acknowledgment and assertion. This is visible proof of their existence, and the very visual material that makes Wilson’s project possible.

This refocusing reminded me of Titus Kaphar’s Crumpled and Wrapped series, where he’s literally re-framing the canvas, often to emphasize the figure of African descent. As a New Haven-based artist, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and teaching from his works of art at the Yale Art Gallery. His work is incredibly meaningful, and he couldn’t be a nicer person.

I’ve finished my tea and cookie, so I should sign-off and check out the Akomfrah show before I have to get back on the Metro-North. Trying to pace myself by only seeing a few shows during each trip to New York, and staying hydrated, caffeinated, and full has definitely become a priority. Have also learned the value of taking taxis instead of the subway and packing light. On to the next adventure!

P.S. If you’re ever in New York, come to New Haven! It’s only an hour and a half away!