Immediately upon entering the gallery space at Artworks Trenton, a viewer is struck by what appears to be a tribal necklace sized for the Great Sphinx of Giza. Suspended from the soaring ceiling, this assemblage of gold circles by artist Kate Dodd shimmers.
Approaching the work, one becomes aware of teeny tiny writing on each of the circles – about 1,600 of them, by my rough estimate. “keep any position as a manifestation of dementia”; “a wave when the instantaneous are plotted against.”
I am far from the only visitor to be entranced by these cryptic messages. Gallery Manager Addison Vincent who curated the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship Exhibition, on view at Artworks through May 21, assures me that many visitors spend a lot of time with the piece, attempting to parse its meaning. “frequency of the plot”; “a medley. good and evil”
It’s like absurdist poetry, to which the viewer can interact, applying individual meaning. Just when you think you’ve stumbled upon something magnificently powerful, you discover there’s another side to this piece. The reverse of the gold circles is covered with tiny detail drawings – a warrior with a shield, for example.
This exhibition of NJSCA Fellowship Awardees in Visual Arts, encompassing the years 2019-2021, is accompanied by a large glossy catalog with images and statements from each of the 37 artists. The catalog is also available online, as is an online viewing platform. I capitalized on the chance to see art in person.
For her shimmering shroud of golden circles titled “Questionable Value,” Dodd, whose practice includes upcycling materials, has repurposed, in her words, a “crumbling 3,000-word turn-of-the-century dictionary… out of date, with much of its information incorrect or obsolete.” She was fascinated by the detailed illustrations. “I couldn’t bear the idea of all these… being discarded,” she writes.
To give value to something deemed of no value, she cut circles of the images, each suggesting coins, and painted a gold transparency over them. Of the words on the back, she writes “I tried to find vague but semi-sinister intent in the happenstance collection of words in proximity to each other.”
The suggestion of wealth and armor makes her think of the feather capes worn by Hawaiian kings. “Creating a ‘protective’ yet flimsy cloak suggesting past wealth in the midst of the pandemic seemed like an appropriate symbol for the omnipresent anxiety of 2020,” she writes.
Oh, right. 2020 – the pandemic – and that swirl of anxiety that has become our lives. This exhibition all came together during the pandemic, and is thus the culmination of three years of awards.
Theda Sandiford, Orange You Glad to See Me: Baggage Cart, 2021, hollow braided polyurethane rope, gold 850 and neon orange 850 paracord, and neon orange zip tie blanket and solar LED lights on a gold spray painted recovered shopping cart, 43 x 35 x 40”
Artworks Trenton managed to keep itself vital during those years, despite having to temporarily shutter and hold programming online, including classes and its signature event Art All Night (Art All Day is held outdoors).
In November 2021, NJSCA Director of Community Partnerships & Artist Services Danielle Bursk contacted Vincent about having Artworks as the venue. The exhibition typically rotates venues throughout the state. In 2018, it was held at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center.
“Artworks was the ideal host for this year’s exhibition,” says Bursk. “In addition to the gorgeous gallery space, the staff was excited to help curate the show and committed to making it a great experience for the Fellows.”
Planning began over a year ago. “Of the unique factors we had to consider this time around was looking at venues that were open given the restrictions of the pandemic,” Bursk continues. Size, too, mattered. Artworks, with soaring expansive spaces, fit the bill.
Fellowship applications are reviewed by panels of peer evaluators identified by Mid Atlantic Arts, the Council’s partner for the Fellowship program. These panels of working artists and arts professionals are balanced in terms of race, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, and geographic representation, as well as artistic interests and aesthetic viewpoints, says Bursk. “The application review and award process is anonymous.”
Funding comes from the Council’s annual budget. Public support for the arts in New Jersey is drawn from the Hotel/Motel Occupancy Fee as well as an annual, competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Once Artworks signed on, Vincent was given a list of Fellows that he contacted and from whom he requested two to three pieces that best represent their current body of work. Thirty-six responded with interest.
Curating a group exhibition with the only common thread being the quality of the artists, as the work is in different media, and of different scale and theme, can present a challenge – a challenge that inspired Vincent. “I wanted this to be a ‘welcome back to Artworks,’ so visitors can come and embrace and interact with the artwork,” he says.
And yet some themes emerge.
One of the first artists to respond was Keyport-based Grace Graupe-Pillard, known for her politically infused paintings that are often figurative, sometimes nude, and presenting women (sometimes herself) in an honest way. And with humor. Here we see her large self-portrait, face covered with a polka-dotted cloth mask that proclaims “WEAR ONE!!” Her eyes are closed; her hand on her heart, as if pledging. When creating portraits, she writes in the catalog, she is joining together puzzle pieces to make a person whole, “one with a heart that thrashes and comes to life; a presence that reveals secrets of humanity in a moment of time resulting in a truth that was once unseeable.”
Adriane Colburn, Peak Streamflow/Climate Markers: Passaic, 2022, repurposed ship mast, dye, 132 x 15 x 15”
Among the other themes that emerge is climate crisis. Adriane Colburn’s sculpture made from repurposed ship mast that also greets visitors as they enter is a beautiful suspended totem of brightly colored parts that is a visual representation of the changes in annual rainfall and temperature along the Passaic River. Theda Sandiford’s recovered shopping cart, filled with gold and orange plastic detritus, addresses the emotional baggage we all carry in addition to the neon plastic waste. “Some push shopping carts of pain and bitterness,” she writes. And Matthew Feurer’s video loop – the title for which is not printable here – presents a sea of writhing, groaning plastic.
Stitching is another element that appears in several works, such as Donna Bassin’s “My Own Witness: Rupture and Repair . Aya. 1,” in which the artist has torn an archival pigment portrait “to create ‘wounds’ of our individual and collective suffering” and then repaired it with gold thread; and Dong Kyu Kim’s “Officially Void,” in which paper envelopes and letters denying a green card are stitched back together.
“After two years of being closed,” says Vincent, himself an artist and a two-time winner of a New Jersey Governor’s Award, “this was my passion project. It’s our first exhibition with a reception that had no cap on audience size.”
The Council created the Artist Fellowship Program in 1971 in acknowledgment of the “critical differences” financial support can make in helping artists gain exposure and advance their careers, according to the catalog. Indeed the Council exists because of that state’s belief that artists are key to enhancing community life and sustaining culture.
Can art change the world?
Artist Ed Peters writes of his inkjet print, “Indio, California,” depicting a group of silhouetted people against a carnival tent, it “probably won’t change the world but I hope [it] gives some small poetic insights into the public space where people negotiate the complexities of their daily lives.”
TOP PHOTOS: Grace Graupe-Pillard, Wear One, 2020, oil, alkyd, on wood, 48 x 36 x 1.5”; Kate Dodd, Questionable Value, 2020, repurposed dictionary, gold paint, brass rod, 60 x 108”