Side-eye isn’t always an expression of contempt. Cast properly, side-eye can also communicate bewilderment, suspicion, confusion or a profound and unquenchable discontent. It can even suggest longing — even if it’s just a longing to be told the truth by those who are in authority, and who are determined to mislead.
The pandemic has been an era of side-eye. It also, alas, has been an era of pinkeye. Conjunctivitis isn’t one of the most common symptoms associated with COVID-19, but if you get it, it is a good indication that your dance with the virus is going to be a particularly hard one.
“In Time and In Tide” — the unsparing, destabilizing and timely new show by painter Armisey Smith at Gallery Aferro in Newark — confronts viewers with side-eye and pinkeye simultaneously. The exhibition, which is curated by Evonne M. Davis of Aferro and which will hang in Aferro’s Main Gallery until April 1, is no fiction. It’s a chronicle of a terrible period of American history defined by pain, distrust and missed opportunities: a period that is by no means over. Smith’s evident compassion for her female subjects — and her ability to invest each brushstroke with empathy — makes this incisive, occasionally accusatory show cut awfully deep.
You don’t need curation to guess that the subjects of many of these paintings are Smith’s actual friends. They’re too real not to be. Their magenta eyeballs are, presumably, straight from Smith’s febrile imagination, pressure-cooked by the stresses of the pandemic and ready to pop. Their skin, on the other hand, is theirs by birthright, and reminds us that the global health crisis hasn’t brutalized all Americans equally. It has been particularly hard on communities of color.
Since Smith is based in Newark, it is virtually certain that some of these subjects will be present at the opening reception, which will be on Feb. 5 from 6 to 10 p.m., with timed admission. If you’ve got what it takes to stand in the middle of a room and get side-eye from all corners (daunting), this is definitely a show worthy of your emotional engagement.
Test you it will. Smith paints pictures in oil of people who have plainly been through it, sets them in front of vigorously colored backgrounds, and frames the images tightly, like the occupants of these canvases are right up against you with something to say. Some of them look incredulous, some startled by what’s happened to us, some dismissive and forbidding, and a few allow themselves a bit of bemusement. To a woman, they are unable to mask their exhaustion. They’ve been toughened by their shared experience, but that strength hasn’t come at a cost they’ve paid willingly, and they’re pissed off about that.
Smith finds the hard angles hidden in their faces and highlights the stony surfaces; pursed lips, tight jawlines and arched eyebrows all speak volumes. It is notable that while many of these faces are recognizably African-American, Smith doesn’t tend to paint them brown. Instead, they’re pale greenish-white, slate grey and, in one memorable case, an otherworldly blue. Color has been stolen from these subjects, and they’ve been drained bone-dry — except for those hot pink eyes, which testify to the close encounter with a pathogen we’ve all come to know too well.
Smith and Davis supplement the side-eye/pinkeye paintings with watercolors and acrylics that underscore the artist’s versatility and her ability to extend her themes across mediums.
These aren’t quite as immediately confrontational as the portraits — there is a gentle, comfortable quality to her works on paper, reminiscent of block prints and batik dresses, that provides a respite from the high emotional pitch of the paintings in oil.
But if the side-eye portraits are fiery hot peppers, the ink and watercolor pieces are more of a slow burn. The longer you look at them, the more a clear and unanswerable statement of discontent is evident. And there is no ambivalence at all in a pair of ferocious mask-like sculptures — one ring-eyed and resolute, assembled by overlapping planks at aggressively acute angles, and another with its face composed of jagged, jet-black spikes.
No one who has lived through the past two years could miss the message. Coping with neglect and institutional racism is hard enough as it is; the inequities of the pandemic have exacerbated an already bitter struggle.
“In Time and In Tide” is no tiny exhibition. It takes up the entirety of Gallery Aferro’s capacious ground floor. But if you are not overwhelmed by its intensity (I’m guessing you’ll be invigorated by it), Aferro has provided a cherry on top. Upstairs in the smaller Eleta J. Caldwell and Rodney M. Gilbert Memorial Gallery, curator Candace Nicholson presents five pieces by Fair Lawn artist Caren King Choi. Choi’s “Red Portraits” look like pointillist paintings, and in a way, that impression isn’t misleading. They’re comprised of thousands upon thousands of tiny, dot-like crimson stickers, colored in marker and painstakingly assembled to conjure up human faces.
Just like Smith’s work, Choi’s pieces suggest race and ethnicity without assigning a specific color to it: the people in these images are plainly Chinese-Americans, and while they’re not giving overt side-eye, their feelings of dislocation and disintegration are made evident by the artist’s technique. These characters have been unspooled and weaved back together, re-assembled in a new place where they don’t entirely fit in. They’re fraying at the edges and could easily unravel; their lives appear smooth at a distance, but they’re sandpaper-rough when observed head on.
If Choi’s subjects seem insecure, there is good reason for that: Crimes against Asian have spiked, and Chinese-Americans have been demonized and blamed for the pandemic by some of the worst among us. The “Red Portraits” capture complex human beings who are sticking together but who are far from shatterproof, and who have been made more vulnerable by the tragic events of the last two years.
Much like the side-eye/pinkeye oil paintings, these works aren’t always easy to look at, even as they’re technically impressive. They raise questions about how we’ve been treating each other and suggest that the most imperiled among us are now dangerously close to the edge.
Yet in their perseverance, and even in their fragility, the subjects of these artworks achieve a dignity that is made all the more precious by how hard-won it is. If we can make it through the pandemic, there might be a reckoning waiting for all of us on the far side. In the meantime, as we hold our breaths and attempt to keep our heads, we can do our best to be conscious of each other’s pain — and maybe each other’s beauty, too.
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