Jo Cosme, “Chronicles of a Catastrophic Future,” 2017. Mixed media, 26”x38” (Photo courtesy of the artist); Linda Whitney, “Blizzard Butterfly Dancer,” 2022. Mezzotint with applied earth pigments, 32”x24” (Photo courtesy of the artist)
You could be forgiven for overlooking Isabella King’s contribution to The Center for Contemporary Art’s latest show.
Because you may assume that you know exactly what you’re glimpsing out of the corner of your eye as you step off the elevator onto The Center’s polished second floor: a pair of regulation-issue orange traffic cones, a strip of yellow barricade tape draped between them bearing that standard warning - bold, basic, urgent, in two tongues: CAUTION CUIDADO CAUTION CUIDADO.
Your eyes register the rubber, the plastic, the reflective tape. You’re from Jersey after all: This setup is as familiar as a Jersey barrier or a 12-mile backup due to sun glare on 78 East.
Isabella King, Take Caution, 2022. Reclaimed home décor and garment textiles, 29"x72"x14" (Photo courtesy of the artist)
King’s sly “Take Caution”—and the 52 other artworks gathered in Bedminster through March 3 for The Center’s International Juried Exhibition—begs a second glance. Those cones? They’re swathed in orange hemstitch-embroidered cotton; delicate strips of floral lace fit for a bridal veil stand in for reflective tape, while the CAUTION CUIDADO message stretches across a floral-patterned quilted belt. Yes, a warning sprouts from a soft bed of flowers, green stalks and tendrils: Something is growing here amid all that’s broken and under repair.
And in fact, with this exhibition, The Center is crawling with life—birds, canyons, creation myths, Lady Justice with a piñata at the U.S.-Mexico border, and a frightened Lady Liberty sweating it out, eyeing the hands of new arrivals straining to gain purchase on her pedestal.
If you let it, The Center, a sturdy, brick, converted schoolhouse just beyond the whoosh of traffic on Route 287, can serve as a retreat from monkey mind, the endless pinging and scrolling that we all like to lament but can’t seem to quit. The visitor who dares to stop a while will end up keeping company with a few dozen artists working things out in a variety of media. The works on view grapple with issues we all seem to be up against from day to day, among them: gun violence, immigration policy, consumerism, technology, identity.
Esteban del Valle, an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, served as the exhibit’s juror. Del Valle says he “wanted the exhibition to reflect different ways of looking and processing our lived experience,” so selecting works in a wide variety of media was key. The show features video, photography, sculpture, mixed media, and fiber art as well as works on paper, panel and canvas.
Cyndi Wish, who came in as The Center’s executive director last March, says she prioritized choosing a juror who is an active, working artist.
“Some artists work in a vacuum—not Esteban,” Wish says.
The Center, formerly known as the Somerset Art Association, has been hosting its International Juried Exhibition for more than a decade. While The Center’s ethos is proudly local—offerings include summer camps and open studios, programs for children, teens and adults as well as member exhibitions—Wish regards this particular show as “The Center's opportunity to introduce our local community to creative content, process and style that our community may not be familiar with or have seen before.” Communications & Development Manager Leigh A. Zona estimates that The Center received 773 entries from 269 artists this year, the entrants being from across the United States and Canada, as well as the United Arab Emirates, England and Russia.
Jo Cosme, Ballads of Desolation, 2019. Digital Photography, 24”x20” (Photo courtesy of the artist.)
Jo Cosme’s digital print “Ballads of Desolation,” which lays bare some of the effects of 2017’s Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, earned second prize. (First prize went to Linda Whitney, third prize to Kevin Arnold). In the photograph, taken two years after the hurricane hit, a pair of naked women perch side-by-side on the lip of a grimy bathtub, backs to the camera. The women exist in a partial bathroom, exposed to the elements—the tub, the sink, the toilet intact, even a partial wall of powder-pink tile—and then, above, the bare, wooden frame of a structure encroached upon by palm fronds, the (de)constructed world meeting the natural world. The structure: as exposed and raw as the bodies it cannot contain. The world is literally falling apart around these women.
The figures are naked, but also somehow prim: They appear as if they might be folding their hands in their laps; their backs are erect. They are refuseniks, looking away, not toward—not toward one another, and certainly not toward the camera. They are naked defiance, refusing to allow the camera’s gaze to meet their own. CAUTION CUIDADO, in other words: These women will not be “captured” by a probing lens; enough has been taken from them already, thank you very much.
Imagine that scene, catty corner to “Cheers,” an insouciant little oil painting by Jacqueline Chanda, depicting a middle-aged man seated in a café raising a glass alongside his honey. Our male subject is casual but expensive in sockless loafers, Bermuda shorts, and a shirt that you just know is linen, a pair of sunglasses shielding his expression. The gray hairline recedes.
Jacqueline Chanda, Cheers, 2021. Oil on Linen Canvas, 14"x11" (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Our man may be in his golden years, but his drinking companion, turned away from us, is positively golden. She’s clad in a formal black floor-length gown—another faceless woman, another fascinating back—a head of lustrous blond hair pulled tight, swept off her bare neck.
By the look of things—witness the clattering collection of glassware on the table—we’ve caught our friends deep into their cups. A beam of light cuts through the purples, blues and grays thrown across the café floor, dividing the couple. The brushstrokes are loose, the scene appears celebratory, but there’s some darkness in this brew.
So perhaps what we’re really interrupting is a kind of forced reverie, a slurred declaration that our toasting, toasted couple is living “The Good Life.”
Participating New Jersey artists in this year’s International Juried Exhibition are Ry An, Blairstown; Christine Barney, Jersey City, Jacqueline Buck Donadeo, Manasquan, Eliza Dodeles, Lambertville, Steen Epstein, Edison; Lenore Knoller, Basking Ridge; Deborah Morris, Jersey City; Charles Mulford, Chatham, Jeanine Pennell, Stockton; Angela Pilgrim, Newark; DeAnn Prosia, Morristown; Christine Sauerteig-Pilaar, Oak Ridge; Timothy Simmons, Newark; Barbara Wallace, Elizabeth; and Andrew Werth, Princeton Junction.
The Center for Contemporary Art is located at 2020 Burnt Mills Road in Bedminster, New Jersey.