New Jersey was one of the first places in America bitten by the pandemic. We have also been leaders in the fine art of post-pandemic dreaming. Way back in March 2020, we were already fantasizing about the possibility of a gleeful, pathogen-free summer. It didn’t work out that way. More than two years and several variants later, we are still waiting for the air to clear. More than 3,000 new cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in the Garden State on April 28. Hospitalizations remain high, and we’re waking up to the scary implications of long COVID.
Windows are opening statewide, but trouble persists.
Museums and galleries have strained to capture the spirit of this strange transitional period: cautiously forward-looking, quietly frightened, still dodging invisible bullets, still alienated from our friends and neighbors, still clinging to faith in a wide-open future, both ready to go out and desperate to stay home.
“Black and White to Magnificent Color!,” a lively group show mounted in Watchung in March and early April, imagined New Jersey emerging from monochromatic lockdown of winter to a wild spring and summer of vibrant hues. Art spaces in Jersey City — a town brutalized by the first wave of the pandemic — have, in a promise of re-engagement to come, turned from exhibitions of grim, depersonalized landscapes to images of the body in motion. In June, the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton will present a show it has titled “ReEmergence” — which, hopefully, will not prove to be a cruel irony.
Now comes “Revival: Post-Pandemic Visions,” a smaller exhibition, but one no less engaged with our struggle against the virus and quarantine-related depression and disconnection. The group show, which will be on view at the 1978 Maplewood Arts Center until May 22, shares an outlook with other spring arts events in the Garden State. The title is optimistic. The work is deeply ambivalent.
Curated by Marina Carreira, “Revival” feels like a sequel to the Watchung show. Maybe it is flintier, maybe it’s a bit starker, maybe it’s a little more impatient, but the feeling is similar: Garden State artists grappling with a seismic event in their lives, attempting to capture some of that turbulence on their canvases, and expressing genuine apprehension about what is to come. It has the same sense that the terrible forces that put us in this bind haven’t let up, and the same will to contextualize the pandemic within a wounded world that was already spinning out of control.
The two shows also share a star.
Josephine Barreiro of Newark is a proven scene-stealer: Even in a room of excellent artwork, her vivid paintings demand immediate attention. “Cat Devouring Bird,” with its monstrous, jagged-toothed feline composed of monitor-fritz stripes and spray paint drips, lent some charismatic menace to the second floor of the Watchung show.
In Maplewood, Barreiro has, once again, contributed the painting you can’t miss — it’s on the back wall of the gallery, directly across the room from the front door. “One With Nature … One With Soul” is less aggressive than “Cat Devouring Bird,” but its explosive energy isn’t dissimilar. Barreiro provides the same sharp points and the same wide, staring eyes, and the same graffiti-style paint trickles, bleeding off the bottom edge of the image.
“Cat Devouring Bird” alludes to “Guernica” and Francisco Goya’s brutal “Saturno Devorando a su Hijo.” “One With Nature” hitches visual elements drawn from Picasso and Miró to the engine of Essex County street art. It’s a unique approach, and one that continues to make waves.
The assertive “One With Nature” is an outlier in a show dominated by smaller, moodier pieces, some featuring human subjects in repose or in involuntary stasis, eyes closed, or turned away from the viewer, or with features totally obscured.
Judyann Affronti’s “Sweet Dreams (With a Little Help From Her Friends)” is a portrait in felt of a pretty, red-cheeked woman drugged, tucked into bed, flowers growing from her head and bottles of antidepressants on her pillow. The gentle curves of the soft fabric blossoms reinforce the sense of deep slumber that the work radiates. Wake her up when the pandemic ends, and maybe not even then.
The subject of Christina Duarte’s tense “Green Room Melancholy,” rendered in oil, has her eyes open, but seems even farther out than her felt neighbor. Duarte underscores the sharpness of her feature by running a red ribbon of paint across the bones of her face — and then she wraps it, anaconda tight, around her neck. It is, like many of the pieces in “Revival,” a snapshot of life amidst an invisible storm.
Other faces in the show display that strange combination of fear and ennui that have characterized the lockdown period and its aftermath. Cathleen McCoy Bristol’s “Zoom Meeting” will speak, in a heavy voice, to anyone weary of the teleconferencing grind. Here are the glazed looks, the sideways glances, the forced attentiveness, expressions of barely concealed boredom and evident stir-craziness that Zoom has engendered. Even the cat looks zoned out, convinced, rightly, that this is no way for civilized animals to communicate.
The more desolate the vision, and the more destabilized the characters under study, the more thoroughly the faces of the subjects are erased.
Manman Huang’s grim “Mother Nature I” captures a body kneeling on a red-brown wasteland, back turned to the sunrise, head bowed, hands clasped over the figure’s heart. There is a powerful hint in the canvas that the storm is easing, but all of the broad brushstrokes on the ground point straight to the sexless naked figure brought to its knees. This is a portrait of an interior experience: private pain experienced at a time of widespread catastrophe.
Agnieszka Wszolkowska’s “Fibroids Head” is even starker. In biological-pink acrylic, the painter gives us thick blotches where a woman’s head should be. Her subject is overtaken by agony — so consumed with her suffering that her identity has been swallowed.
Then there is Lisa Lackey, noted channeler of light through slats, grids, and blinds. In “Where Are You,” an amalgam of ink and paper on fabric, she summons a shimmer of light on walls and wooden dressers in a chilly-looking room. The only signs of habitation are a pair of red shoes on the wall and the spectral shadow of a human figure in the window. In a show that often foregrounds absence and the dissolution of personality at a time of desolation, hers is a particularly scary vision.
These are not exactly post-pandemic images. But, then again, we’re not exactly in a post-pandemic era. Some of the photographs in the show even evoke memories of the odd, depopulated landscapes of the spring of 2020: once-recognizable city streets rendered quiet and otherworldly by quarantine conditions. Rachelle Parker’s lunar “Maplewood Morning” — very early morning, by the looks of it — is a sweeping shot of a barren transit station in the pouring rain. It’s both familiar and forbidding, and a reminder that inclement conditions can turn everyday things sinister.
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