(Photo above: Left — Ricardo Barros, “HEATHER, POSITION NO. 1,” 2021. 360-degree digital composite, inkjet print on cotton rag media, mounted on Gator board 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Right — Megan Klim, “PERMUTATIONS VESSEL,” 2021. Encaustic, ink, shellac on wood 36 x 36 inches Courtesy of the artist.)
The theme for the New Jersey Arts Annual 2022 is “Reemergence.” It is on view through April 30, 2023, at the New Jersey State Museum. And yet on the balmy November afternoon I went to see it, I wondered: Have we reemerged? Neighbors and friends are still contracting COVID, there had been FBI warnings of threats to synagogues in New Jersey, and in the days leading up to the elections, fears of voter intimidation and violence loomed.
The exhibition, supported by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (NJSCA), annually rotates venues throughout the state. Each year, the exhibition “is one way that we recognize and highlight new work, and provide the opportunity for audiences to see artworks from some of the most innovative and accomplished artists in the state,” according to Danielle Bursk, Director of Community Partnerships & Artist Services for NJSCA, in a prepared statement. This year’s exhibition drew 2,000 submissions from nearly 400 artists, from which 127 works by 95 artists were selected by the State Museum’s Director, Margaret O’Reilly, and assistant curator, Sarah Vogelman.
“We had set aside two days, plus one day for contingencies,” says Vogelman, but the process took a full week. “I was so impressed with the quality. We were looking for something that spoke to the theme, as well as the caliber.”
Vogelman, who has worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, started at the State Museum in January of this year, when the theme had already been set. “A lot of the works look at the theme from a different perspective, posing their own questions. What is the reality we’re looking at, and how do we approach these times? Are we able to?”
Not only are there 127 works to view, but each piece is deep and thought-provoking. Vogelman estimates viewers will need 45 minutes to a full hour to take it all in, but I found I needed even more time, and want to go back for subsequent visits. (The museum’s free admission makes that an inviting possibility.)
A series of biweekly lunchtime conversations with the artists deepens engagement.
“We’ve had some really interesting conversations,” says Vogelman. “In much of the work, themes of anxiety, isolation, surrealism, and disconnection come through... We hope the exhibition serves as a place for the public to engage and reflect as we each envision reemergence. It allows us to realize often unprocessed thoughts on a situation, or a deeper thought that needs to be had. When I see art, it allows me to engage with things I’ve left unprocessed.”
Perhaps the work most emblematic of how we all felt during the lockdown is Judith K. Brodsky’s “Self Portrait 2,” in which she depicts her own face in a scream that makes, by comparison, Edvard’s Munch’s eponymous painting seem like a yawn. Brodsky appears so horrified at what she is seeing, her pretty pink eyeglasses have come akilter, and her teeth seem to be shattering. It is an apt response to these apocalyptic times.
Judith K. Brodsky, “SELF PORTRAIT 2,” 2022. Oil pastel on paper 50 x 65 inches. Courtesy of the artist
Quilt artist Gay Bitter writes, “It felt like Armageddon.” Her work, “There’s a Pandemic and the West is Burning.” came out of her “rage and grief over all the human deaths and ecological destruction.” Reading her description, I think back to that tragic moment in recent time when New York City had to set up tents in Central Park to treat all the patients the city’s overflowing hospitals could not accommodate. Even now, the city is setting up encampments for refugees being bussed to its beleaguered borders. So again I find myself asking, have we emerged?
“When the State’s activities shut down and the word quarantine came out,” writes artist Jose Camacho, “I stopped listening to the news. My studio became my sanctuary.” (Camacho is far from the only artist who found his studio to be a refuge.) Thinking of his mother, Camacho contacted her to get a description of her process for making pasteles, a staple food of her native Puerto Rico made with pork and adobo stuffing encased in a green plantain masa and wrapped in banana leaves. He fused her description into an enormous mixed media work titled “Mother should be landscape.” Indeed, during times of upheaval, one craves Mother and the comfort foods she made.
Whereas Camacho takes refuge in making art, photographer Ed Peters found that, in his work documenting public spaces, the pandemic intruded. “This has required me to use framing, choice of lighting, and architectural details to suggest alienated disconnections of pedestrians… I hope I don’t have to do this much longer.” One can only hope. His “Coney Island” shows a lone figure walking under a canopy with a picnic table just outside a fast food store that appears dark and vacated. Truly, the world of dining out has been forever altered.
When Megan Klim found herself teaching remotely from her home studio, she discovered a panel on which to create a work in encaustic, ink, and shellac that she describes as “offhandedly purposeful.”
“It was work that I deemed as mindless,” she writes, “repetitive, doodle-like… I could get lost in the process and viewed (it) as a way of recording each passing day at home.” The work evokes finely made lace that is frayed and worn, and one thinks of the women who made handcrafts in earlier times, taking meditative comfort in the repetitive.
Ricardo Barros, “HEATHER, POSITION NO. 1,” 2021. 360-degree digital composite, inkjet print on cotton rag media, mounted on Gator board 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist
Photographer Ricardo Barros went outdoors, where it was safer. When he’s not working as both a commercial and fine art photographer, Barros spends weekends as an umpire for the United States Polo Association, and in a 360-degree view he presents a horse barn with himself in it. Next to it is another work, a 360-degree digital composite of his wife, the artist Heather Barros, hunkering down in Buffalo-plaid pajama pants. She is sipping a cup of tea, surrounded by stacks of her canvases. The image conveys the conflicted feelings of being in lockdown, and actually taking comfort in the solace, the pleasure of wearing pajama bottoms all day.
Especially striking are the fiber works of Ann Vollum, whose two sculptures suggest the Gorgon sisters – Stheno and Medusa – from Greek mythology, who have hair of living, venomous snakes. Vollum uses a process of eco and rust dyed rescued fabrics to create “poufs” that, rather than frightening, are soft and endearing. She is rendering the monstrous as lovable.
Ann Vollum, “GORGON, MEDUSA,” 2022. Eco/rust dyed fabric, polyfil, wire, string, thread, washers 38 x 14 x 7 inches. Courtesy of the artist
Alan Skalaski shares remembrances of bars and other venues, from the days of going out. “These are places I have longed for in isolation,” writes Alan Skalaski. In one painting, at the center of a street with international storefronts, lies a supine Mickey Mouse, his white gloved hands reaching toward the heavens. Even Mickey seeks salvation.
“My general takeaway about the artwork,” says Vogelman, “is how these artists are using traditional tropes – landscapes, portraits, interior scenes, and still lifes – but are using them with new urgency. In some cases they haven’t had access to their studios, and have used their homes or their walks outside, to make portraits of people in their bubble, or outside their bubble who they don’t get to see.”
Jane Kunzman had created a grid of 100 portraits in 100 days of people who came to mind, following her practice of Transcendental Meditation. “As I paint their likeness, I am able to tap into the feeling of being with them… I am grateful to have them in my life… As the small squares filled my space, I had an increasing feeling that I am not alone in my studio. I am not alone in the world.”