New ‘Walls’ Spring Up At Ives
At first, maybe you think you can count all of them. Brick walls, glass walls, garage doors that double as walls, roofs that are just walls turned on their sides. Miniature walls encircling miniature squares of astroturf. Red white and blue walls surrounded by high picket fences. At some point, a question takes root: Why are they all here? And what are they really for?
Now, the New Haven Free Public Library is taking the question on. Up through July 6, Elizabeth Antle-O’Donnell’s new exhibition Walls walks beholders along the thin line separating security from segregation.
The centerpiece of Antle-O’Donnell’s exhibition is a series of linocuts—a kind of relief print pulled from a linoleum block that’s been carved away to reveal each picture’s figure—entitled “Ives Subdivision A” and “Ives Subdivision B.” The two ‘subdivisions’ are tri-fold triptychs. They repeat prints of the same three houses in rows five or seven across three inwards-facing panels of matte gray fabric.
One of the images is of a fairly large, contemporary-styled home. It’s accessorized with a wide driveway that extends outward with bushy trees behind. The second home is a smaller house with a single path leading to its front door; a short bush rests in front of the house and tall trees proudly stand at its sides. A tree hovers over the narrow home next to a gravel path in the third of the three scenes.
Antle-O’Donnell shows the houses in yellow-oranges, blues, and reds. The houses are closely aligned on the gray matte, with just enough space to distinguish one from another. The structure of the grids remain the same from panel to panel, but Antle-O’Donnell varies the combination of her colors and the three stock houses to produce different surface patterns.
The two ‘A’ and ‘B’ subdivisions also differ from one another. “Subdivision B” is more sparse compared to “Subdivision A.” Antle-O’Donnell has taken away the majority of prints from “Subdivision A’s” plan to produce “Subdivision B.” The remaining homes in “Subdivision B” run along the very top, bottom, or middle of the panels in groups no less than three.
When the two triptychs are compared, it is as if they are observations of the before and after of an event. In “Ives Subdivision A,” the collection of squares seems complete and whole—every home plays its part in the community. The coloring suggests mixing and communication between neighboring squares. The image is bright and hopeful.
In contrast, in “Ives Subdivision B,” the missing squares make the groups seem distant and introverted. Although the colors and scenes within in the miniature pictures are still the same, there is more negative space in the form of the gray matte. “Subdivision B’s” tone is consequently more negative, more solemn than the first’s.
In “The New American Dream,” Antle-O’Donnell combines a new series of 15 linocuts with popsicle sticks and gold spray paint. She arranges the popsicle sticks in a rectangle that rises up off the print’s picture plane perpendicularly, mimicking a fence. A few inches away from the fence, she organizes red, white, and blue squares by their color in ruled rows of five.
Unlike her “Ives Subdivision,” the houses of “The New American Dream” are homogenous. The one and the same print is repeated across the entire grid and the diverse colors of the ‘Ives Subdivision’ have been subjugated to the palette of patriotism.Liz Antle-O’Donnell here suggests society’s future, or displays its most current reality. “The New American Dream” just might be to conform to the norm.
Antle-O’Donnell proposes a monotonous parallelism: individuals lose their identities, their defining traits—their ‘color’—to meet others’ demands, to follow the master plans. The wall is an instrument in this program: it prevents expansion and evolution and protects “The New American Dream” from outside influence. The wall keeps out differences and locks in the desired population. When applied to America and its ethics broadly, the dream among many is to be perfect, the same.
Black and white linocuts of another identical house line the perimeter of the central square in Antle-O’Donnell’s “Are We There Yet?” A similar assemblage of white sticks connected with intertwining white thread rings the square. Behind this perimeter is a patch of shiny, emerald-green grass. The green outside the fenced area is made up of multiple shades—all patchy and sickly. The shiny grass enclosed within the fence is flawless, but it is closed off.
Antle-O’Donnell plays with the tension between two and three dimensions. The dividing fence commands the beholder’s gaze; it’s the first thing to be noticed. A disruption in the flat pattern, the fence is literally off-putting as it rises off the picture plane and encroaches on the viewer’s space. The fence as a marker of isolation and exclusion takes on an added menace. There is a lurking threat in how this grass doesn’t participate in the life of its residential community: no children play on this lawn, no dogs sniff and dig at it. It is dead space.
The walls in Antle-O’Donnell’s work make audiences wonder whether or not their protective barriers do more harm than good in communities. Do these tangible fences—and their implied, intangible equivalents—benefit humanity and improve morality? Gates, fences, and walls tend to protect and ensure safety, but Walls reminds its beholders that they can also signify isolation and coldness—freezing the flows of learning and love between peoples.