All storytellers know this: What is omitted is just as important as what is included. Some details sing, some provide context, and some are best left out altogether. A good artist sidesteps distractions and directs the attention of her audience to the emotionally resonant elements of her work.
This knack is especially crucial for storytelling painters, who generally have no more than a single panel to make an impression. Yet when it is done right, a painting can imply a rich narrative, fire the viewer’s imagination, and encourage gallery-goers to fill in the empty spaces with colorful visions of their own.
“The Maximum Minimum,” which will be on view at The Gallery Space in Rahway until April 15, asks: How much can an artist remove and still tell a tale? The answer, provided by 50 pieces contributed by 10 artists, turns out to be quite a bit — more than storytelling ought to be able to withstand.
Despite the title of the show, this is not a minimalist exhibition, or even a particularly abstract one. Almost everything here is figurative. You’ll never feel at sea about what you’re looking at: These images of city streets, desert expanses, grocery aisles, barren rooms and wispy cirrus clouds never try to be anything other than what they are.
But through their otherworldly starkness, they defamiliarize the ordinary things they’re depicting. The artists in the show share an observational style: They rely on intense focus and expressive discipline. In their pictures, that which is extraneous simply falls away.
The American master of intrigue and elements withheld was Edward Hopper, and some of “The Maximum Minimum” is indeed Hopper-ish.
Jennifer Macblain Malone captures a diamond of morning sunlight on the wall of a tony but empty bathroom, letting the beams define the shape of the unseen window. Illumination tickles the wooden molding and tiled floor. Right above the closed porcelain lid of the commode hangs the toilet roll. It casts a shape of its own — an elongated gray streak of a shadow. Cheekily, Malone calls this painting “Morning Paper,” and the toilet paper is the star; everything draws the eye to it, and she manages to coax the austerity and mystery from it. A tall order, considering what it is, but few things on earth are more ennobling than the first beams of daylight. If the sun can make toilet paper look regal, what might it do for you?
In the past 12 months, Francisco Silva has been making his own Hopper-like presence felt all over New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. The Frenchtown-based artist contributes four of his oil paintings to “The Maximum Minimum,” and makes noise with each one. “July Construction” presents a bald and vulnerable bicyclist navigating an overbuilt landscape. The picture implies excessive heat and oppressive circumstances in general, offsetting the fleshy white of the rider against a great institution-green metal dumpster. Silva knows what to highlight: The overhead sun casts black, squat shadows of the bike wheels on the street, suggesting a rider pushing through tar, and expending more effort than he ought to have to. In one visual gesture, Silva manages social commentary and a character sketch, and makes it all awfully pretty, too, even as he’s foregrounding his protagonist’s struggle.
Yet the Silva painting best aligned with the aesthetic of this show is “Evening Stroll,” a portrait of a woman on a deserted city streetcorner. A glowing lamplight hovers over her. The featureless gray walls and plate windows of the building (likely a bank) lean, ever so slightly, toward the sidewalk and shove the woman toward the margins of the frame. She stands still but her little dog — barely a speck in the image — strains at its tether. Neither the woman nor the animal turns toward the viewer. Instead, we’re addressed by the architecture, the electric light, and the night air, and what we’re told is not exactly friendly.
Solitary people are similarly dwarfed by their surroundings in Anna Ryabtsov’s supernaturally crisp photographs: a tiny dune-walker traversing the line between brown sand and jagged blue mountains, a jet black figure in a winter jacket under the billowing spray of a waterfall, a faint human outline atop a hill in Death Valley at sunrise. Here is human particularity engulfed by the homogenizing forces of nature, awesome and impassive, and more than a little dangerous, too.
The similar postures of Ryabtsov’s explorer in “Dunes #1” and Silva’s night walker in “Evening Stroll” — head bowed, shoulders hunched against the immense, indifferent surroundings, going somewhere but in no particular hurry — are echoed by the desolate paintings of Gwen Yip. Yip, the revelation of this show, paints her city skies as flat and featureless as a sheet of paper. She evacuates the cityscape of detail and presents its buildings as great mute blocks.
Yet her images don’t feel surreal. These are places we know well: big, cold, aging places, populated by individuals, mostly of color, who carry the weight of urban hardship on their bent backs. In “Will He Come Home for Dinner,” an elderly woman peers into a near-empty market. Little details speak volumes: the tightness of the kerchief on her head, the bulbous quality of her winter coat, the apparent weight of the drooping plastic bag she carries. In “Rainy Day,” Yip manages to convey the dull ache of miserable weather in a few simple images: a tightly held umbrella, a quick squiggle of wetness on an otherwise undistinguished sidewalk, and the contrast between the gray-brown sky and a procession of too-orange traffic cones on a road that hooks toward nowhere. It’s a masterwork of mood.
The brick-red wrought iron fence that surrounds the bleak yard in Yip’s “Cigarette and Scooter” is a reminder that “maximum minimum” can also refer to a criminal sentence. Just over the south bend of the Rahway River lurks East Jersey State Prison, glowering under its dome, looking like a visitation from a past era but still full of inmates. Though it is beyond city limits, the penitentiary bore the town’s name until the late ‘80s, and distant echoes of footsteps in the cell block are audible whenever Rahway is discussed.
The “Maximum Minimum” show is loaded with bars, slats and sealed portals: Malone’s “Summer Shadows,” for instance, throws a sun-shielded lattice of stripes over a thick black door with no handle evident. Alex Melo’s Spartan chamber with a bunk bed and a small cubic device suggestive of a security camera feels like a peek inside a cell. Lisa Lackey, a textile virtuoso, stitches bars and barriers into many of her gorgeously assembled textile works, including a fine-toothed urban rampart on “Snow on the Tracks” and the cyclone fence on the self-explanatory “I Locked Myself Out.” Lackey likes to inscribe her own shadow into her images, and in “Locked,” she manages to pen her silhouette between the steel and its shadow. In this context, even the innocuous metal mesh of the shopping cart in “Grocery Aisle” takes on a penitential feel.
Other closed doors — and shrouded faces — don’t give up their secrets so easily. In “Montclair Wall and Graffiti,” photographer Arthur Paxton presents us with a study in arresting, unexpected color: white brick, a boarded-up window in shamrock green, an ochre concrete slab lurking in the background, and bright red accents everywhere, as if the image might burst, volcanically, from the inside. Something troubling may be confined behind that ragged wooden board, but Paxton isn’t telling us what. The faces of the subjects of Matilda Forsberg’s vaguely sinister psychological portraits are distressed and frequently blurred, heavy-lidded, puffy, captured in blunt brushstrokes. The mother, father and child in “Feeding Ritual II” are crowded together in a booth, under a low and menacing dining room ceiling. There is china on the table, and a hovering feeling of opulence — but the three characters in this drama aren’t looking at each other and the patriarch, in particular, appears to be receding into the dark background.
“The Maximum Minimum” is curated by Lawrence Cappiello, founder of Rahway’s Arts Guild and the director at Gallery Space. The gallery’s brick building on Irving Street is an appropriate room for an exhibition that raises questions about the role of economy in narrative: It was Rahway’s original library. In the 21st century, it’s one of the smartest art exhibition spaces I’ve seen in the Garden State — a spacious, well-lit and welcoming architectural highlight of a perennially underrated Jersey town.
The Gallery is open from 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, and by appointment on weekends. For the next couple of weeks, it will be home to an early spring shower of a show, one that is often glum but never less than gripping.
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