Somewhere in New Jersey in 2022, there were cautious art shows. There must have been: Sheer probability suggests that somebody spent the year chickening out. But I saw many exhibitions in 2022, and I can’t think of anything the least bit cowardly, or even conflict-avoidant.
No, Jersey curators came back from shutdown swinging. The best shows of the year weren’t crowd-pleasers. They were bossy, outspoken, argumentative and sometimes confrontational. In a troubled time, they didn’t aim to soothe us. They told it to us as it was.
My list of 2022 favorites contains a sweeping survey of African-American portrait art, a pre-invasion intervention in our understanding of the cultural autonomy of Ukraine, a fearless examination of border zones, a look at the legacy of slavery through the medium of traditional oil painting, and several shows that squared up to the psychological effects of the pandemic. Other exhibits that narrowly missed this list were similarly topical, and similarly bold.
After long seasons spent on the sidelines, museums were ready to re-enter the conversation about the state, the country, and the world we ought to be.
Here were my picks for 2022. I’d love to know yours. Feel free to let me know in the comments section below.
11. Elizabeth Colomba, “Repainting the Story,” Bainbridge House, Princeton (Curators: Laura Giles and Monique Long)
Elizabeth Colomba’s virtuosic paintings look like they were completed two centuries ago. Training at the Beaux-Arts in Paris taught her how to use oil paint, gold leaf, thick, handsome frames, Renaissance colors and other artistic elements associated with old masters. Yet sh has applied what she has learned to an act of liberation: Her subjects are women of color, taking the lead roles in ancient myths, Bible stories and scenes from American history. The style couldn’t be more traditional, but the content is subversive. Many of Colomba’s works examine the Colombian exchange and the slave trade, including the shattering “1492,” a depiction of (among other things) a dropped bowl of flour so meticulously rendered that the individual grains are discernible as they billow in the air in front of an astonished porter.
10. BARC the Dog. “Machines I Wish Existed,” Deep Space Gallery, Jersey City (Curators: BARC the Dog and Deep Space)
Hudson County is a place of small galleries, tucked into storefronts on side streets, insulated from larger trends, left free to pursue wild whims. The bravest of these laboratories is Deep Space in Jersey City, a room that has always been an intermediary zone between street art and the institutional art world. Deep Space frequently champions forms of artistic expression that other galleries won’t touch. This autumn, they turned their space over to Alexander Lansang of Cliffside Park, who converted Deep Space into a launching pad for a cartoon character of his own invention: the irascible, resolutely urban BARC the Dog, a snaggletoothed, howling canine who is always in a scrape. Lansang gave us BARC cartoons, BARC literature, BARC plushies, pictures of friends engaged in BARC-related cosplay and dazzling, colorful acrylic paintings of BARC interacting with the machine-like sculptures that commanded the floor. It was a plunge down a rabbit hole, an opportunity to bathe in the bent brain-waves of a marvelously overheated mind, and it couldn’t have happened anywhere but Deep Space.
9. “Black and White to Magnificent Color!,” Watchung Arts Center, Watchung (Curator: Alpana Mittal)
If lockdown felt like life lived in grayscale, release from pandemic era restraints would feel like getting the rainbow back. This was the premise behind “Black and White to Magnificent Color!,” an expansive Watchung Arts Center exhibition that kept the monochrome stuff in a small ground floor gallery and the vibrant pieces in the airier second floor space. Yet a funny thing happened on the way up the stairs. The anxiety that pervaded the show intensified. Reengagement with the world was not portrayed as joyous. Instead, it was a resumption of the forces that had pushed us headlong into big trouble. Josephine Barreiro’s Goya-gone-graffiti painting of a cat eating a bird, Susan Evans Grove’s unsettling experimental photographs, Francisco Silva’s lakeside image on a too-hot summer day: This was color as an expression of growth and will left unchecked. Meanwhile, there was something indisputably comforting about the stillness, the gravity and the fatalism of the black and white pieces. Here was a graceful but firm reminder that pandemic era emotions have been more complicated than we’ve sometimes pretended, and that a long sleep under a blanket of snow is a secret, widespread craving.
In 2022, Heather Williams established herself as one of the state’s young art stars — a paper-shredding, purple paint-slinging, poster-pasting assembler of pieces of undeniable beauty and power. This year, Williams was everywhere, sharing her peculiar vision with gallery-goers on both sides of the Hudson. Her canvases were evocative of city walls covered with layers of advertisements and notices, left to weather into suggestive illegibility. These torn-up sheets, some of them ripped from books, were supervised by a council of elders: busts of African American woman, regal-looking in terra cotta. That tribunal offered silent commentary on the pieces at her delightful show at Akwaaba Gallery this spring, and stared down visitors to her smaller but no less powerful exhibition at the Bridge Art Gallery in Bayonne in the summer. Elemental Williams magic spilled over to the Meadowlands, where the artist shot a short film that summoned, and captured, the mystery of the Jersey wilds. Did we dare follow her down the torn edge of a ripped sheet?, down a path through the weeds on the riverbank?, to the contested territory in front of our elders’ staring eyes?
7. “Reemergence,” New Jersey State Museum, Trenton (Curator: Sarah B. Vogelman)
Summing up a state visual arts scene as rich and as varied as the one in New Jersey is an impossible task. The State Museum in Trenton tried anyway — and presented the Garden State as a fractious place united by trauma. “Reemergence” brought many of Jersey’s heaviest hitters to the capital, including Valerie Huhn and her thumbprint-scored pushpins, oil painter Mashell Black and his gut-wrenching, profoundly stressed human subjects, and visionary photographer Edward Fausty, channeler of the otherworldly quality of the everyday. But nearly everything in this rich, varied and profoundly pained show was worth engagement, and maybe even sympathy. Sometimes the message was overt, as in Antoinette Ellis-Williams’s protestor portrait “Take a Knee for Justice,” which only looked abstract until you paid it the attention it politely demanded. Sometimes, it was implicit, like in Daniel Finaldi’s table set for one in a suburban backyard, overgrown and awaiting the touch of a caretaker unlikely to return. And then there was an image dramatic enough to make your toes curl: Pauline Chernichaw’s painting of a falling baby. Oh, and unlike most of the other shows on this list, some of which were very brief visitations, you can still see “Emergence” if you’d like. It’s on view through the end of April.
6. “George Inness: Visionary Landscapes,” Montclair Art Museum, Montclair (Curator: Gail Stavitsky)
The Montclair Art Museum reaffirmed its commitment to unconventionality this year, giving us an exhibition of homemade Tarot cards; a wild, wonderful scrap-strewn wall-hanging by the yarn-spinning prankster Michelle “Woolpunk” Vitale; and a retrospective devoted to the work of children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney. Yet their true masterstroke was their return to the canon of American landscape painting and the cornerstone of their own collection. Nineteen works in oil by the mystic George Inness (a Montclair resident for much of his career) flooded a small gallery with the orange-dawn light and silver moonglow that were two of his hallmarks. In so doing, Inness drew connections between the Hudson River School and Impressionism, Whistler’s twilight reveries and Tonalist fantasia. Neverthless, he was his own man, driven by profound spiritual motivations. Inness painted sunrises and sunsets because that’s where he believed God was best accessed. The near supernatural visual effects he was able to bring to his canvases might convince you that he was right.
5. “For the Culture, By the Culture: 30 Years of Black Art, Activism, and Achievement,” Morris Museum, Morris Township (Curators: Charles D. Craig, Nette Forné Thomas, Onnie Strother, Michelle Graves)
One of this year’s main attractions at the Morris Museum was designed to be a celebration of Art in the Atrium, the long-running Morristown organization dedicated to showcasing African American painting and sculpture. That it was. It was also much more. The breadth of “For the Culture, By the Culture” was impressive: Forty-three artists contributed accomplished portraits in various styles, including an iconic, impassive “Nefertiti” by William Toliver, a laudatory, poster-like “Basquiat” by Bisa Butler, and a strikingly realistic disapproving “Matriarch” by Alonzo Adams. But what really distinguished the summer show was the depth of its emotion, the gravity of the work, and the dignity that carried from canvas to canvas. And though Art in the Atrium never gets too experimental, it was also noteworthy how many of the most striking pieces in the show were new ones, like the crowd of spectral Black bodies that seemed to float toward the edges of the frame in Rosalind Nzinga Nichol’s mixed-media “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses.”
4. “Thread Hijack,” Hunterdon Art Museum, Clinton (Curator: Mary Birmingham)
Last year, The Morris Museum mounted a blowout show devoted to African American quiltmaking. The Montclair Art Museum countered with an exhibition of Navajo blankets. At The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster this fall, a juried exhibition of felters demonstrated just how much meaning a skilled artist can tease out of matted wool. Yes, New Jersey loves fiber art. But I don’t think there ever has been a textile show in the Garden State quite as hypnotic or audacious as “Thread Hijack,” a clever, talkative assembly of wonderworks in needlepoint. Here was stitching at its least homey — textile works full of collisions and risk, artistic happenstanceand subtle provocation. Abdolreza Aminlari sewed gleaming, sharp-cornered squares of 24-carat gold thread on colored backgrounds; Natasha Das pitted fields of embroidery against turbulent patches of oil paint; Jessie Henson drove so many fibers through her backdrops that they buckled like corsets. Thread, the exhibition showed us, doesn’t merely pull things together. It can also unravel, conceal, tease, tickle and ensnare.
3. “Land of the Free,” MANA Contemporary, Jersey City (Curators: Irene Mei Zhi Shum, Kele McComsey)
Of all of New Jersey’s hidden cultural treasures, MANA Contemporary may be its most spectacular. The under-publicized Jersey City arts center houses marvels: Warhol silkscreens, Dan Flavin lightboxes, a gymnasium-sized hall filled with cross-shaped abstract expressionist paintings by Arnulf Rainer, and consistently imaginative special exhibitions. Kele McComsey, the new artistic director, inaugurated his run at the helm with a show worthy of MANA’s reputation for excellence and social awareness. The three contributors to the smart, nervy “Land of the Free” examined borders, migration and the vexed, static-clouded conversation that takes place between mutually distrustful cultures. Joe Minter brought martial-looking sculptures assembled from scrap iron and used car parts, Hugo Crosthwaite painted murals of his native Tijuana on the MANA walls, and Vincent Valdez haunted visitors with the faces of the Central American disappeared, printed on translucent rice paper, spotlighted and hung like ghostly banners from the ceiling of a narrow chamber that felt very much like a temple. Together, they suggested that barriers impede those who erect them as much as they harm those they restrain.
2. “Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985-1993,” Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick (Curators: Olena Martynyuk, Julia Tulovsky)
Unless you’re a diplomat or a foreign correspondent, it is likely that you know more about Ukraine today than you did a year ago. The Zimmerli Art Museum has extensive holdings of Russian art, and was ready for 2022. “Painting in Excess” was the best kind of topical exhibition — one that anticipated major controversies that we didn’t even see coming. The museum’s sweeping, corrosive and occasionally ribald overview of Glasnost-era Kyiv art made a persuasive case that Ukrainians had their own distinct cultural identity, and were better aligned with Europe than anything going on in the Kremlin. Particularly stinging were the paintings that addressed the Chernobyl disaster directly and pointed a finger at an oppressive Soviet system that fit Kyiv poorly. No authorities escaped the withering assessment of Ukrainian artists: not the church, not industry, not police, not even the heroes of the national past. Mere weeks after this show opened, we got practical examples of Ukranian feistiness and resolve. Before the first shot was fired, it was all right here for us. As exercises in crystal-ball gazing go, it’s hard to do better than that.
1. “Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision,” Newark Museum of Art (Curators: Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, Mark D. Johnson)
It seems hard to believe, but before 2022, there never had been a major retrospective devoted to the work of a Filipino-American artist. When it finally came, it was a whirlwind: a grand, gorgeous, globe-spanning, intellectually rigorous masterstroke from a unique figure in the history of 20th century art. In tar, tattoos, blood and bone, feathers and footwear, Villa told a story that encompassed his heritage, his participation in the San Francisco art scene of the ’60s and ’70s, his father’s immigrant experience, and his own hallucinatory vision of a pan-Pacific aesthetic. Villa worked with materials common to folk artists, but with them, he fashioned works of curious transcultural power that fell far beyond the borders of any tradition. Among them were a series of massive cloaks, painted in patterns suggestive of Polynesia and adorned with plumage, opulent enough for a tribal chief, but made of taffeta, a material most associated with teenage dances. The artist smashed his face against the canvas as if it was a passport stamp. He made shoes to fit his feet out of bark pulp. He cast himself in a charcoal chrysalis and, once he emerged, left the broken pieces for the world to see. This was all part of a desperate, brave and beautiful search he conducted in public. Villa was attempting to find himself. What he discovered was something unlike anything else on earth. It was a substance impossible to counterfeit, rough and unruly and irreducible, and his alone — an individual human personality.
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