The Basement Curator

Yale senior Benji Fleischacker draws his bow across the cello’s strings and begins to play the opening note of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. Under dim, red-tinted light, a crowd of students gathers around him. Some watch him with their mouths agape, but junior Brian Orozco stands with his eyes closed and head bowed, as if in prayer.

Fleischacker stops mid-song and softly taps Orozco with his bow: he needs Orozco to turn to the next page of sheet music. It takes Orozco a few seconds to realize, open his eyes, and fumble to the right section.

The crowd is gathered at “The Holy Holy Chapel,” a week-long art show curated by Orozco featuring the works of fifteen Yale undergraduates. The “Chapel” is the basement of Orozco’s house on Edgewood Avenue. An intertwining network of air ducts wrapped in silver insulation hangs from the low ceiling. The walls are whitewashed, jagged bricks showing through in spots where paint has flaked off. Every available space is covered with artwork: a mix of silkscreened curtains, photos, paintings, and sculptures.

While planning his show, Orozco was aware of the “barriers to entry” inherent to an off-campus exhibition. However, having the art show in his building, he said, gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted with the space and curate the show from scratch. But he knew that the idea of visiting a stranger’s dingy basement off-campus could dissuade some people from showing up. “I don’t trust Yalies to come more than two blocks,” Orozco’s roommate, Ryan Mera Evans, joked a few days before the opening.

Yet around seven on a Friday night in late March, the Chapel begins to fill with people. Orozco, dressed in a lilac button-down draped over a black shirt, waits by the stairs and greets each newcomer enthusiastically. Most visitors gather into small groups that squeeze together for lack of space, chatting and sipping on Franzia or fruit punch from plastic cups as the sound of the cello floats in the background. Some slowly weave through the room, spending a brief moment in front of each piece of artwork. Others linger at just one piece, staring intently.

Although Orozco came to Yale with the intention of majoring in Art, he felt that the academic demands of college drew him away from making genuine work and exploring issues of race and heritage. “I find myself in art classes doing assignments just for the sake of doing them, just for the sake of getting a grade,” he said. “I can’t spend four years doing that.” The limitations of the academic environment precipitated his decision to switch out of the major. His show—liberated from Yale spaces—reflects his new sense of freedom.

Orozco spent the afternoon before the show arranging and rearranging the artwork, searching for a certain “visceral reaction” that would come only from a precise presentation of the pieces. He began by creating triangular bowling pin–like formations of small plaster apples in opposite corners of the basement, as requested by the artist, junior Annie Jones ’18. He used the only two photographs in the show as central works, arranging the other pieces around them. One, by junior Michelle Kemei, is a side profile of a black man’s face, his pink flower earring in vivid focus. The other, by senior Anna Wane, captures a foot dangling over the side of a bed. “I knew for a fact that I wanted a lot of the energy to revolve around [the photographs],” Orozco said. “I moved the image to one place and everything else followed like Tetris.”

After hanging up every piece, Orozco realized that all the artwork “to some extent explicitly dealt with race and bodies of people of color.” The two photographs both feature black bodies. A large painting depicts a black woman in repose, lips parted, surrounded by a sea of color as a metallic hand reaches towards her. Other pieces address issues of race and identity in more indirect ways. For Orozco, even the performance of Suite No. 1 in G served as a meditation on “what white music looks like and what kind of European tradition has been ingrained in my upbringing.”

Though none of his own pieces were in the show, the show’s racial focus reflects Orozco’s own recent artistic path. His latest works have largely involved an exploration of his Mexican heritage: last semester, he created a photo-book that explored both his and his parents’ identity through scenes captured on his first visit to Mexico during spring break last year. “Through self- discovery and courses I took at Yale, I realized that I should look back to my own history and identity,” he said.

While Orozco sees race as the predominant theme of the show, senior He Li, whose paintings were on display, views the “The Holy Holy Chapel” in a more spiritual way. One of his paintings depicts two men walking along the sidewalk against a backdrop of clouds illuminated by bright moonlight. “Not only can [art] function as the same way as religion, but it can also lead people to spirit, to God,” he said. “The beauty of creation, the beauty of the world can lead us to what is out of the world, what is beyond the material.”

“The Holy Holy Chapel” offered its viewers a spiritual enclave and an opportunity to confront issues of race and identity. But Orozco said he had a more modest aim, too: in one, transient moment, to bring people together through art.

As Fleischacker finishes playing, the crowd claps and cheers. The audience, once silently focused on the music, disbands and reverts to chatter. Orozco ducks under a curtain in a corner of the basement. Suddenly, the opening notes of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major fill the basement again, reverberating through speakers. The piece plays for the entire night.

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