On a recent visit to the newly expanded and renovated Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT, this is the first thing that greeted our eyes beyond the glass doors:
We automatically found ourselves looking up. Seeing nothing beyond the intricate pattern of the concrete ceiling, we looked again at the four figures at the end of the gallery, and found ourselves hard-pressed to look away. Simple, stylized, more like mannequins than humans, they were nevertheless mesmerizing. Blank expressions? Perhaps. But we read changing meanings into them. Were they frightened? Bewildered? Ominous?
We spent long minutes gazing at them before we read the gallery description: “Borne out of Judith Shea’s early training in fashion design and her witness of the attacks on the World Trade Center, these mannequinesque forms, tailored in industrial gray felt, seem transfixed on a spectacle above. While their enigmatic expressions may register as wonderment or terror, their sullied, ashen torsos ominously suggest that they are more than just distant observers.”
American artist Judith Shea, born in 1948, called the first two figures she sculpted in 2006-7, Twins. The second pair, 2006-9, she called Shock and Awe. Rightly named! That was our emotion looking at them:
We had come with relatives to see the new gallery and installations, but it was a long time before we were able to tear ourselves away from these enigmatic figures. But such serious concentration isn’t easy to maintain for long. And perhaps we all felt a certain level of uncomfortableness, both from the works themselves and from our memories of 9/11.
So here is what I think is a very natural and human reaction to shock and awe:
Our woman visitor looks suitably shocked and perhaps awed; the gentleman however looks more like he’s saying, Aw shucks! Time to move on, please!
And so we did. More colorful (and upbeat?) photos of the rest of the gallery visit coming soon.