Studio Visit: Oren Pinhassi at Yale Sculpture Department New Haven, Connecticut

The Architecture of Tomorrow Douglas Turner Critic Oren Pinhassi Artist

Early in December on a day that received a blast of weather reminiscent of spring, I made voyage to New Haven. I’m no stranger to Connecticut, but this would be my first time in New Haven, and my first time to walk the grounds of Yale University. One of my two travel companions is an alum, the other is a newbie just like me. We were on our way to visit the extremely talented artist Oren Pinhassi ( b. 1985 ), an Israeli artist currently an MFA student at the Yale School of Art, Sculpture Department.  He earned his BFA at Hamidrasha School of Art, Beit Berl, Israel and is the 2011 recipient of the Shlomo Witkin Prize for Excellence in the Art Field.  His works include photography, sound, sculpture and installation and range from small scale objects to gallery wide structures.

Yale Curved Pedestrian Bridge

By the time we got to New Haven, however, I wondered what they (my companions) were getting me into. A good portion of our train ride conversation was dedicated to the socio-economics of the small city; the history of crime, gangs, neglect, misfortune, and mysterious Yale related deaths–Suzanne Jovin, Annie Le, and one very recent, Professor Samuel See who died mysteriously while in police custody. Needless to say, an eeriness of subject brought our lively conversation to a quiet. More strangeness, we were arriving on the eve of Jovin’s mysterious murder.

Room with a view—from the artist's studio at Yale

Room with a view—from the artist’s studio at Yale

The Sculpture Building that houses Oren’s studio is a green structure on Edgewood Avenue. Completed in 2007 the project also included an art gallery clad with reclaimed western red cedar, with windows that fold away to extend the space out to the sidewalk—think front porch. Sited to maximize natural light, however the cool cell-like interior doesn’t do much for natural co-mingling.

Yale Sculpture Building Interior Hall

Yale Sculpture Building Interior Corridor

Except for times of leisure (two furnished terraces, and a communal area with a Harvard brand ping pong table), Oren said that he can go the entire day without communicating with another of the building’s inhabitants. The studio spaces and workshops are very generous in size. The view from the studio affords the artist mountain peaks, steeples, the arts and craft eaves and overhangs of neighboring homes, and plenty of daylight.


The seductive nature of Oren’s latest work, for me, is his amorphous interaction with the un-manifest. Although he is most definitely making structures, his process involves a particular equanimity focusing as much on the interstitial space that at first glance becomes because of the walls created, yet perceptively that space contains a force of its own. Gravity takes hold, and the plaster covered burlap falls into catenary forms which are then erected creating a ‘something-out-of-nothing’ space to explore. The open curvature of his new work suggests a devotional with space, creates an interaction with sound as well, and looks as if it could go on infinitely.

Preview of Oren's latest work in the studio [Photo courtesy of the artist]

Preview of Oren’s latest work in the studio [Photo courtesy of the artist]

OP: Resisting gravity is something every single building is doing, but usually buildings are made in a way that is not allowing you to see or to feel this active force and it make sense because being witness to gravity acting on a building would be a terrifying thing. I like the fact that witnessing gravity is one of the strongest elements of this new piece.


Transitioning from his most recent large-scale works The Contagious Brides (2012), and his hay bales (2013) the artist admits to their rigid structure, and the Euclidean process with which that work required—his new work is free from 3D models, and a specific order of process. The logic which had previously guided his quest into the interior, he no longer needs this (or for the moment) having mastered the structure. He has reached a point of untethering, engaging his asomatous longings where form flows freely. The work seems to express not merely the mathematical genius of structure and architecture, but reveals a more complete expression of the experience, where the force of object and space dwell electrostatic-ly in a state of heightened awareness.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This process of transition is “constantly evolving and subtly changing” Oren says.  And as he progresses, we see an elemental embodiment of structure and nature through preservation and decay, presence and absence, openings and closings, and the symbology of resurrection. At this point in his process, the work is free from gesticulative objects that are merely ploys by artists to beat the viewer over the head with an objective.  The elemental embodiment that Pinhassi is exploring, in fact, has erected a spirit-in-structure that speaks as if a sacred scroll echoing revelations.  The revelations are spoke of themselves, what are perceived as concordance and conflict are but the nature of the Universe’s mutual agreement—things that are in intimate proximity will shape each other.

Wall in Oren's Studio at the Yale Sculpture Building

Wall in Oren’s Studio at the Yale Sculpture Building

OP: What I discovered while working on this new piece is that the arches I made generates a subtle eco, it is a weird eco that feels both as sound bouncing back to you, but also it feels like you are deaf in one ear. I think that I like to think about these as a kind structure that allows you to use it temporarily as an orientation for your body. Orientation here includes both sensual and physical elements, but also mental, and historical or intellectual.  I am trying not to separate between these different elements and that could be both an orienting thing but sometimes a very confusing one.

The open womb-like structure contains without confining (which must be the ultimate seduction) giving birth to a spatial relation that is familiar only in its solid form, but leaves one free to explore gravity and ‘other-space’ without being completely disoriented.  The metaphysical representations are many, and I look forward to exploration.

The passage way and courtyard of the sculpture building and art gallery are open, entwining them with the neighborhood

The passage way and courtyard of the sculpture building and art gallery are open, entwining them with the neighborhood

In a conscientious shift from Yale’s historically insular assemblage, the plan now is to build structures that engage with the city’s environment rather than create its own. Yale had been a little slow on the ball playing a role in strengthening the constant struggling city of New Haven. But over the last two decades the distinguished institution’s endowment, and urban renewal efforts has grown exponentially. Under the leadership of past University President Richard Levin, the Town and Gown battles have begun to fade. As most things go, a matter of opinion I am sure. Yale has invested in New Haven real estate, affordable and luxury housing, retail development, and inter-generational education. No longer an oasis in an urban desert, the Yale community and local residents once again have a lively downtown to shop and eat in, to see art in. Downtown New Haven is also home to the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council, and the K of C Museum, and a mix of small and national retail and food businesses. What really caught my eye was a brand new community college building that dominates the low lying buildings of downtown.

New Haven reminded me of home. I could have been in downtown Albany or Schenectady. If not for the brand new community college, New Haven was a dead ringer for 1988ish Anycity along the Northeast coast. Sections of downtown that showed the wear of underuse with empty storefronts visually equalling businesses in operation, buoyed by signs of revitalization—Thai restaurant(s)(s), and that random chain restaurant that takes up half the block. When a space is in a transitional period, its easier to relate to it by what you have recently known, rather than to believe in the vision that it is faced with; a struggle to become something more than a city in decline. If as a transplant you arrive with a vision unfettered by a specific location’s past, what you’re doing is really cool.

Oren’s downtime consists of more making of things.  When he’s not working on his larger sculptural works, he pops out smaller works like this backpack.

Oren Pinhassi Untitled 2013 back pack, plaster, chalk-board paint, chalk [photo courtesy of the artist]

Oren Pinhassi Untitled 2013 back pack, plaster, chalk-board paint, chalk [photo courtesy of the artist]

Despite a new idyllic vision, Yalies can exist in a near self-contained environment with restaurants and shops woven throughout the streets around the Old Campus buildings. The rest of New Haven is still attempting to recover from the all too familiar American post-industrial saga of a declining urban middle class population.

Rudolph Hall (formerly known as the Art & Architecture Building), houses the Yale School of Architecture and is one of Paul Rudolph's best known works.

Rudolph Hall (formerly known as the Art & Architecture Building), houses the Yale School of Architecture and is one of Paul Rudolph’s best known works.

In New Haven between WWI and II most of the population growth was made up of African Americans migrating from the south, and Puerto Ricans. As we know this time with its codified socio-economic structures marginalized the largest growing urban sector in a post-industrial era with manufacturing jobs on the decline. It was a combination of economic shifts and subverted social consciousness that successfully laid the groundwork for most of the urban whoas we deal with today. In the mean time cities are seeing a resurgence in former demographics. Suburbs are being hash tagged what they’ve always been, boring, and the children, and grandchildren of the folks who fled urbanity, are on the return and swiftly reclaiming the city streets asking Brooklynites what their accent is.

Knights of Columbus Supreme Council [We can call it the BIG Smoke Stack]

Knights of Columbus Supreme Council [We can call it the BIG Smoke Stack]

New Haven represents for me, what most bugs me about similar cities, and what gives me a glimmer of hope. For sure New Haven is in a bit of a boom. Churning from the trend setting changes of nearby metropoles urban living is cool again, condo buildings are popping up throughout the city, with them the kinds of businesses those residents are the leading patrons of. We didn’t visit the shopping strip, home to a mix of a new standard of anchors—Apple Store, Urban Outfitters, J Crew, American Apparel. Yet how astute of local officials to recognize they have the right mix of people, space, and architecture, and then initiate renewal. These shops certify any downtown a lively place to be. However, the fact that New Haven is benefitting from a rising urban economy could be short lived if nationally the middle class continues to suffer an erosion of stability. At the level of Nation probably the most apparent economic criticism is that for the most part we are still living on a false economy, or at least unfair. For example, a 2010 report stated that the “current endowment model of investing is broken.” Endowments are so large that they actually weigh on our economy, and communities. The best instance of this is Harvard’s epic fail in 2009, when the endowment tumbled, and tumbled down by a record 30%.

Art Sundries at Oren's studio

Art Sundries at Oren’s studio

Back in the 90s, the longest serving Mayor in New Haven, John DeStefano Jr., and Levin led the way with a new vision including bolstering public schools, and homeownership programs to remove blight. In recent years Yale has sparked a biotech movement in New Haven, a multi-million dollar industry that sells off its discoveries to pharmaceutical companies for the big bucks. New Haven brokered a redevelopment deal with a real estate conglomerate that today is at the center of a heated local debate that mirrors national concerns. The project included affordable housing in its mix of retail and mid-income housing, and was subsidized with public money and state issued tax credits, including a tidy sum from Yale. The national for-profit developers who cemented the formalized gentrification boom in the Ninth Square are asking for a $10 million bailout. Savvy local taxpayers are balking at such a request from the McCormack Baron Salazar and Related Companies partnership, who in 2011 was ranked in the top five of affordable housing owners in the country. Yale feels its done more than its duty as a non-profit, and has stepped out of bailout talks.

Yale_NewHavenArchitectureThe idea of ‘private’ interest shaping a city are ultimately anything but innocuous to the growth and stability of a city. For a period of time a city benefits its inhabitants, and at other times it is the reverse, yet rarely has it ever been isochronous. I wonder if the current trend of privatizing public necessities has any longevity? It goes without saying that industry and city are interwoven. When business has a substantial financial interest in city infrastructure, their best outcome most likely puts their bottom line ahead of citizens. Amounting to no more than an unsustainable trickle-down process, supposed urban renewal that either relies on privatized solutions, or industry to attract a higher tax bracket are inadequate, and here is why. The better jobs obviously go to those with the education. Like any urban renewal project to bring back major industry to their perimeters, the majority of jobs provide little economic and skills nourishment for struggling residents, and they are offered unsustainable wages for the basic jobs which they qualify for. These are merely incidental quick fixes that drive down the unemployment rate, but do little to pull more above (or at) the national median income. The mortgage crisis is one of the greatest scams allowed to criss-cross our country. Back in 2008 New York Times reporter Lisa Prevost wrote that a plague of subprime mortgages headed for foreclosure were ripping through Connecticut. The Connecticution of homeownership was especially vicious in New Haven, those same first time homebuyers that DeStefano’s initiatives were supposed to create a new outlook for. As recent as December 2013, the New Haven Register reported Connecticut’s foreclosure rate is the fifth highest in the country.

Retail components of urban renewal make things look nice with their clean windows, designs, and constant light. The rapidity with which the trend of retail moves, makes it merely an excellent candidate for a sidebar project. New Haven’s excitement over their commercial renaissance was as if all modern problems were on the cusp of death. It is true, national shops give people a ‘trusted’ reason to come back to downtown, but mostly its something to do for those with buying power, and creates even emptier desires for those who don’t.

The planning and architecture of urban favoritism communicates very aggressively. This is not a metaphor. It says with specificity who among the classes, and still to this day ethnicities, which it is for. A rising tax base has a particular eye for how its tax dollar should be spent. It is in the eye of their interest which serves as the architectural point of innovation, and the rest of the city receives the trickle-down. Eradicating poverty is in everyone’s best interest. Yet when it comes down to how to spend tax dollars, the Protestant work ethic shows its influence in multifarious ways, brandishing blame and the other half’s inability to follow the saintly path of the more successful half. Mostly the uppers get involved because they want to reduce crime so they can spend their spoils without fear, its crime that makes their experience unsavory. Where the attention goes… incarceration rates are insanely high in this country. And poverty is stunting national growth just as much as it always has.

Spaces and places that signal with a tight focus, run the risk of also being rejected. In an atmosphere of social fragmentation, individuals act out in a variety of ways when they feel neglected by what is essentially a love affair. Cities are the sum of inanimate objects and spaces. But these objects and spaces are made by human minds and hands, making them very intimate, hence why I call it a love affair. When you are excluded from a thing of human intimacy, you feel it in very visceral ways. Urban psychosis, neurosis, and desperate acts of criminal survival and behavior weigh a city and its inhabitants down. Relating crime to other social statistics has been a thing since the early 1800s in France. The root of crime isn’t in bad people, its in exclusionary practices that force people into other methods and modes of meaning-making, until it becomes burned generations deep into the psyche of those who share a close-space with that ideology; it evolves from a singular to a group act, to a behavioralism, until it simply becomes the thing one does in that environment.

Preview of Oren's latest work in the studio [Photo courtesy of the artist]

Preview of Oren’s latest work in the studio [Photo courtesy of the artist]

The structure of a city becomes infinite because of the humans that are shaped by it, and vice versa, and also cities last a really long time. This is Roland Barthe’s trajectory in Semiology and the Urban—the city and its inhabitants are one thing happening; the dialogue between the two is constantly unfolding into many iterations of a single event. While the city remains, the people are ‘transient mythical creatures.’ What the symbology of a city is, constantly changes. Spaces and places meant one thing, and in the next era that all changes. Cities begin to stand for filth, crime, poverty, neglect, and now they are the it thing. But the subdivided ways of our culture means that there are many interpretations of the symbols within a city. However, the way we’ve operated in our cities, is predicated on the basis that the interpretation held by the majority, rules. The problem we face here is that these subdivisions are about the unique qualities of each, but generally have arisen through the majority excluding the minority. Interpretations in our shared culture are informed by a group’s history. The outlines of these partitions begin to fade in the face of likeness, and is most obviously noted in the unification of whiteness, wealth, or the perception of having relationship or assimilation (real or perceived) to either. Like tolerates like. Why is it so difficult for our humanity as our likeness, to shape our everyday? Our multiple personalities do the talking from a perspective of privilege or a sense of cultural neglect.

ColoredPropertyIn our ceaseless quest to define and create what is ‘right’, the judgement of taste often times lacks compassion and conscious awareness for all that is deemed ‘not right’. By and large, African Americans were sufficiently excluded from federally funded homeownership programs, and the higher-educational boom that enabled more Americans to acquire the skills needed to meet the demands of a new economy.

A cure won’t come in the form of an Apple Store, or any other trickle of newness. Poverty doesn’t get extinguished with condos, and fancy shops—it just gets shuffled around. Those things are merely ‘feel good’ commodities for those with the resources. Cures come in real commodities such as education that can immediately be put to use, and decent affordable housing unfettered by schemes created by a corrupt banking industry. Why not set fire to the roots of inequality? In 1992 Gateway Community College was founded out of two smaller local schools, and now boasts a brand new (late 2012) LEED certified four-story, 358,000-square-foot campus on Church Street. A wonderful urban accomplishment. But with all of that intellectual capital crammed into a tiny city, wouldn’t you expect that? Education after all is about improving the human experience. Preserve the past, build the future.

What past are we preserving, and for who are we building this future? People say that they want a more open and inclusive future for their city (and the world), but in the everydayness, whose future are we expressing interest in? What pray tell are you witness to? Only considering what it is we are communicating as we build the New City is inadequate, there’s no shortage of first person perspective in this country. A far more advantageous idea to contemplate is how that transmission might be perceived and interpreted today by the multiple perspectives that our cities of many people are.

Oren’s earliest works demonstrate a strong technical foundation, in 2010 we witness him begin to merge soma, body, and form with his monumental Gate.  The very next year, with his untitled works, the structure is used as dis/orientating engagement.  Next came The Contagious Bride and the hay bales—bravely Oren explores the human psyche and the experience, with Shepard-like austerity and compassion. And today, on the eve of his graduation from Yale, I’d say his next work will be well received.

The Artist’s Website

The Contagious Bride and other works are represented by Tempo Rubato Gallery, Tel Aviv