CWOS Gets Ready To Party ... And Fact Check

Rendering for Brainwashed. Courtesy Artspace and Zeph Farmby. 

Rendering for Brainwashed. Courtesy Artspace and Zeph Farmby. 

At the center of the New Haven Armory’s Drill Hall, four large brown faces sprout from the floorboards like potted plants. Only visible from the nose up, they are young and identical in size, with eyes that look ready to close at any instant. They are heavy with the weight of what sits above them (and, in one case, all over them): four bright cartoon montages from MGM's Tom and Jerry, with the show’s signature cat and mouse scurrying around the legs, breasts, and hands of someone the network has dubbed Mammy Two Shoes

But the Armory hasn’t turned into a new storage space for cartoon ephemera. The piece is part of Zeph Farmby’s Brainwashed series, one of 14 special commissions at this year’s 20th annual City-Wide Open Studios (CWOS) festival. Tuesday afternoon, Artspace New Haven hosted a short preview for the works, inviting the artists to say a few words about their pieces in advance of next month’s festivities. 

Rendering for Brainwashed. Courtesy Artspace and Zeph Farmby. 

Rendering for Brainwashed. Courtesy Artspace and Zeph Farmby. 

Sponsored annually by Artspace, CWOS runs weekends throughout the month of October. After a kickoff celebration on Oct. 6, four themed weekends will bring art and artists to Westville, the Goffe Street Armory, studios across town, and Erector Square in Fair Haven. This year’s theme is fRact/fiction, intended to investigate the boundaries between fact, fiction, alternative news, and the truths and untruths artists tell in their work. More information is available on Artspace’s website.    

“We are on full-on party mode,” said Artspace Curator Sarah Fritchey at Tuesday’s event. She added that the 14 commissions are intended to “break down the wall between institution and artist,” making the festival more open to the community than it has been in the past. It’s part of a greater effort on Artspace’s part to better engage and support artists, audience members and neighbors from inside New Haven. 

A digital rendering of what garden-pleasure will look life. Courtesy Artspace. 

A digital rendering of what garden-pleasure will look life. Courtesy Artspace. 

This year, those include pieces like Farmby’s Brainwashed, a series that started when the artist returned to the “addictive” cartoons of his childhood—cartoons he remembered loving once upon a time—and saw patterns of institutionalized racism looking back at him. Using a facial form that he had first created in his 2012 piece Eat The Rich, he mapped a series of cartoon montages onto a young boy's nose, eyes, cheeks, and forehead, planning to fashion the faces as wood cutouts in their final version. 

“If you don’t understand what you’re looking at, you say ‘Oh, that’s a nice piece,’” he said. “But when you look further” the audience may find themselves uneasy with the pieces, wondering how the series could run for as many decades as it did with a headless “Mammy” character. 

13 other commissions also seek to raise questions about the social and political space in which this year's CWOS finds itself. There is for instance Ian Donaldson, Daniel Glick-Unterman and Olisa Agulue’s garden-pleasure, an installation that explores what a garden symbolizes “as a space of myth and making," according to the artistic team. Working together on a series of small, upright garden-like boxes, the team recruited seven collaborators to do installations in each box, interpreting in 1400 square feet what it means to have a space that relies on biodiversity for its very existence. 

O'Donnell's project. Courtesy Artspace. 

O'Donnell's project. Courtesy Artspace. 

Other sound- and performance-oriented works like Maria Gaspar’s Sounds For Liberation and A Broken Umbrella Theater’s telephone-themed Exchange will find a place in the CWOS lineup as well. Unfolding outside Artspace’s 50 Orange St. gallery, John O’Donnell’s Neo-American Post-Teen Day Dream will blend theater, architecture, costume design, and dance to explore what being American means in October 2017.

Two weeks later at CWOS’ Armory Weekend (Oct. 14-15), he’ll expand the project on the Goffe Street Armory’s small lawn, building structures that are both hollow and two-sided in search of audience interaction and potent social commentary.  

So too installations that take on performance, food, arts, and immigration, like Cesar Valdes’ map-meets-installation Come Come and Martha LewisXperimental Libations.

In the first, Valdes has crafted an Armory Weekend project based on the immigrant makeup of the food service industry, drawing parallels between it and a militarized zone. A recent immigrant from Columbia, he said Tuesday that he wasn't planning on art that intersected with cooking. But then he moved to the United States with his partner, and needed to find a way to help pay the bills. 

In the second, Lewis will pop bright capsules into an array of brightly colored liquors, seeing if any of them have the vexing power to change moods. 

Might art be the salve you've been searching for, the project asks seductively? Attendees will have to come to the first weekend to find out.