Photo: Andrea Geller, "Swimming Over Antarctica." Acrylic on printed map, 10-by-10 inches; Gail Scuderi, "Residences for Resilience #1." Clay, glass, rebar, wood, shells.
Is it OK to brag about our state?
New Jersey often gets a bad rap, but those of us who live and work here know that among its many assets is the presence of some of the finest artists.
A visit to the New Jersey Arts Annual at the Noyes Museum will dispel any doubt about that. In fact there’s such an explosion of impressive works that the museum has opened both its locations – the Arts Garage in Atlantic City and Kramer Hall Galleries in Hammonton -- to showcase the New Jersey State Council on the Arts annual presentation of the best of our state.
(And as if that’s not enough, due to a domino effect from the pandemic, the Arts Annual from the preceding year remains on view through April 30 at the New Jersey State Museum – the state is bursting with exhibitions touting its talent.)
“Each year, the Arts Annual provides an opportunity for New Jerseyans and visitors alike to discover new work from some of the most innovative and accomplished artists in the state,” says the statement from the NJSCA organizers, in a preface to the catalog. Yes, there’s a great big juicy catalog, both online and in print.
The theme for the 2023 Annual is “Mother Nature vs. Human Nature: The Inequity of Climate Resilience.” Winnowing the more than 800 submissions to 105 included in the show was a daunting task for the jurors. “We asked of each piece, ‘How successfully does this work of art address the theme of the exhibition. We also sought to create a balance and variety of materials, media, and process,” they write in the catalog. “We are impressed by the skill and creativity of the works submitted and by the innovation in techniques and technology used by many of the artists that might not have been available a few decades ago.”
Gail Scuderi, "Residences for Resilience #1." Clay, glass, rebar, wood, shells.
Jurors Suzanne Reese Horvitz and Robert Roesch, artists and educators, live in Philadelphia and have studios in Hammonton. They are partners in life as well as collaborators on many works of art and exhibitions, including “Borderless,” a 2021 exhibition at the Noyes, and “Transduction,” a series of Corten steel pyramids covered with gold leaf at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton. They have served as cultural advisers to the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, Ecuador, Myanmar, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Syria.
The selection process took multiple days. “During our first run through the long list of artworks, we simply enjoyed the work. The following days had us in serious discussions about the actual selections. Doing it in several groups we were able to keep our eyes fresh and our minds agile.” They rarely disagreed.
What the jurors looked at to make up their minds were digital photographs. The surprise came when they attended the opening. “Seeing the physical artwork was an unexpected gift,” says Horvitz.
“It was refreshing to see a body of work from a large geographic area and not from a small art school sample that tends to look alike,” says Roesch. “There was beautiful variety in the submissions.”
Noyes Executive Director Michael Cagno had to rise to the challenge of how to divide the selected work between the two exhibition spaces. “The key was balance,” he says. “The museum took into consideration scale, style, medium, and the infrastructure of each site.” Of the seven videos accepted, for example, four are shown at the Arts Garage and three are in Hammonton.
Video artist Li Xiaofei will be familiar to those who viewed the Arts Annual at the State Museum. Here in Hammonton is “I Am the People,” from his Assembly Line Project, which investigates the relationship between industrial production and social development. He has traveled the world, filming at more than 280 factories. The videos are instantly engaging, portraying the humanity of the workers against industrial settings. In one video portrait, Li captures the shy smile of a woman in a disposable bouffant cap.
Li Xiaofei, "I Am the People." Video.
Through his lens, Li captures beauty in the heating-melting-dripping of the factory, the filling of buckets, the assembly-line shuffling of pans. “You keep trying, you only have to work a little bit harder, a few more years, to gain financial freedom,” says one worker. “Shower. Rinse and Repeat. Every day.” A pretty young woman talks about how much money she’ll spend to redo her nose; an older woman speaks about how a partner will break up with you, leaving you alone in the end.
Ron Ross Cohen’s sculpture “Aquatic Ambassador” also needs to be seen in person. A beautiful ceramic head transforms into a fish tail in back with golden scales. The body of this figure is made from a driftwood pier that has collected washed up debris – soda cans, plastic wrappers (American Singles, Capri Sun), Styrofoam, fishnet, rusted metal. Another reminder of the waste we create with every action we take, despite the knowledge that our oceans are filling up with this nonbiodegradable mass.
Ron Ross Cohen, "Aquatic Ambassador." Mixed media.
Nearby is a work that also addresses the human impact on our seas. If it looks familiar, it’s because Gail Scuderi’s public art, murals, and totems can be seen throughout the state. Here, “Residences for Resilience #1” is comprised of little clay houses on rebar stilts over a bed of gravel and shells. They are stamped with “HIGH TIDE FLOODING / KNOW YOUR TIDES / TURN AROUND – ROAD FLOODED / STAY SAFE.”
“Stay safe,” that familiar refrain, suggests the words alone could make it be true. As if a civil wars, a global pandemic, and catastrophic climate events weren’t enough, no words could have prevented the Turkish-Syrian earthquake, yet another country in which, , thousands of people have no shelter in the midst of winter, are competing for even a cup of water. Stay safe.
Kristen Martin-Aarnio’s “Dismantling the Bomb” is a painting of a young woman in a long dress, seemingly having emerged from a treehouse, surrounded by flower fragments – the Garden of Eden exploded. She is parting the curtains – made from that vile red plastic netting that accompanies potatoes, oranges and the like – on a black hole filled with red bombs and guns. As if such a thing could be dismantled. A recent New York Times report on post-apocalyptic fashion comes to mind. As if there’d be anything, no less fashion, after the complete and final destruction of the world.
Kristen Martin-Aarnio, “Dismantling the Bomb.” Mixed media, 14-by-21 inches.
In between the two gallery spaces at Kramer Hall are the works of Fred Winslow Noyes Jr. (1905-1987). Although I’d been to the Noyes’ previous location in Galloway Township – Stockton University took it over in 2017, relocating the operation to its current locations – I’d never thought about the museum’s namesake. In addition to being an entrepreneur behind the "Historic Towne of Smithville" tourist and activity site and the Smithville Inn, Fred Noyes used his own personal collection to start the museum. But he was also a prolific artist, having trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Barnes Foundation, and his paintings here of stylized fish, sailboats, trees, birds, and children seem to fit the theme, although created in less threatening times. Noyes’s exuberant paintings provide a nice respite in that hallway between the two exhibition spaces.
George Taylor’s untitled self-portrait on a slab of ceramic catches the eye – behind glasses, he has an introspective gaze. “Choosing himself as a subject is a conscious decision and not taken lightly,” says the catalog blurb, “as the current political and social environment is still not always accepting and appreciative of Black and brown faces.” Additionally, “the portraits are representations of a Black man of a certain age… The intention is to connect with the viewer.”
One of the smallest works in the show, Andrea Geller’s “Swimming Over Antarctica” makes a large statement. Two swimmers are painted on a map of Antarctica, suggesting that with global melt, this will actually become feasible. Perhaps these two swimmers have escaped to the only water left on the planet that doesn’t scald.
Andrea Geller, "Swimming Over Antarctica." Acrylic on printed map, 10-by-10 inches.
The Arts Garage, in Atlantic City, is housed on the ground floor of a parking garage and comprises artist studios, shops, a café, a flexible classroom studio, and the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. Among the works here, Adam Pitt, in a color woodcut, “uses the symbol of a businessman” – the artist himself spent many years working for a large corporation – “to reference power, fear, demands, weaknesses, identity, stoicism, and lack of self-awareness,” according to the catalog. “The print explores the businessman’s role in climate change and his uncertainty about his place in the ongoing cause of the problem and its effects.”
So how can artists, or an art exhibition, have an impact on our environment? “Art can become a catalyst for important conversation about the environmental problems we face and be helpful in raising awareness,” says Horvitz. “It could inspire the viewer to think about the harms and perhaps envision new answers to the problem. Art can foster us to take action that could lead to affirmative change.”
Adam Pitt, "Underwater." Color intaglio woodcut, 14-by-21 inches.
Cagno says the overwhelming number of applications is indicative of how important the theme was to the artists. “The most important aspect is not so much convincing the ‘other side’ to join your cause, but to provide that space for which deep discussions, learning, and alliances can be formed.”
As for Roesch, he believes “art is… deeply personal. I liked it when the meaning behind the art object was left to the viewer, rather than listening to a long made up canned explanation from the artist. Some of the art we related to had the message of the exhibition more strongly, and some was such good art that it moved me.”
Programming for the exhibitions, expected to begin in May, is in the planning stages. The website will be updated accordingly.