Summarizing the artistic production of an entire state is a tough thing to do. That’s especially true when the state is as varied, and densely populated, as New Jersey. Connections between regional arts scenes exist, and sometimes they’re even well-traveled. Still, the right hand of North Jersey does not always know what the left hand of South Jersey is doing.
The trauma of the last few years has provided us with a shared story — we’ve suffered through the pandemic, political upheaval, societal turbulence in the wake of the George Floyd killing, and the queasiness of the economic rollercoaster we’ve all been on. Did collective pain bring us closer together? Can we strike a dark and diminished chord in harmony? Are we finally speaking in one anguished voice?
“Reemergence,” the 2022 New Jersey Arts Annual at the State Museum in Trenton, is a show with a heavy conceptual anchor. Curator Sarah B. Vogelman has invited participants to foreground their own experiences of destabilization in tough times. Ninety-five Jersey artists have put their scars on display in 127 works, some quite harrowing, made during this brutal period.
Yet Vogelman’s title is a hopeful one, implying that the past few years have been brickbats that we’ve needed to shield ourselves from and, now that the coast is clearer, we’re free to come out of hiding, survey the wreckage and reclaim the lives we once had. Thus “Reemergence” takes its place alongside other New Jersey group shows such as “Revival: Post-Pandemic Visions” at the 1978 Maplewood Arts Center and “Black and White to Magnificent Color!” at the Watchung Arts Center, which were conceived alongside an assumption that things, by now, would be better.
Most mask mandates are gone, and prices of consumer products are down a bit. But on July 29, New Jersey reported its highest level of COVID-related hospitalization since February, and a trip to the grocery store still feels like an emotional and financial obstacle course. Though nobody is locked down anymore, we haven’t exactly re-emerged — and this clenched, defensive, penetrating, deeply resonant show suggests that comfort is still a long way away. When “Reemergence” closes in April 2023, relief might still be difficult to find.
The residue of isolation is all over “Reemergence,” and seeing this show means confronting those peculiar, mind-warping pressures that have come from too much time spent in solitary reflection.
Wayne Hoey of Raritan contributes “DISLOCATED,” an oil painting of a woman in office clothing, shown in various introspective poses, against a field of discarded tires and scrub grass. She was once on the move; now she’s grounded by circumstances. Charles Mulford of Chatham replies with a computer-modeled mini-sculpture in a similarly clinical shade of pink as the woman’s dress. His figure sits atop a chair made of pills, and he’s got one jammed in his mouth where his tongue should be. Teeth spill out of the capsule-like head of another sculpture — the expression is narcotized and blank, but the flatline grimace speaks volumes about the repetitive stress of boredom. In the acrylic painting “Free Fall,” Pauline Chernichaw of Englewood Cliffs applies that pink shade to a scene of greater drama. Hers is a picture of a slash-eyed body, probably that of a child, covered with weeping black lines like those on a shattered glass ornament. A hand reaches toward the subject of the painting, but there’s a sense that the falling baby is as irretrievable as a toy ball dropped down a shaft. Chernichaw’s painting — bold, inward, anxiety-ridden, elegantly realized but unrepentantly raw and, above all, painfully human — may be the show’s quintessential piece.
Vogelman has included work by outstanding New Jersey artists who don’t tend to foreground the human figure, including outdoor shots by the peerless Boonton-based landscape photographer Edward Fausty; Flemington transmutation specialist Valerie Huhn, driver of fingerprint-adorned thumbtacks into ordinary objects; and the necromancer Megan Klim of Jersey City, manipulator of ink and bone-white encaustic. But “Reemergence” will be remembered for its portraits. Many of them teeter on the edge of abstraction, but they always speak loudly of their subjects’ dented minds.
Christine Sauerteig-Pilaar of Oak Ridge shows us a crouched, naked, hairless woman, arms wrapped around her legs, shoulders set, her deeply displeased face stained with grief. She’s partially rendered in crayon, and partially stitched onto a surface composed of discarded sewing forms. “Social Distancing” by Charles McVicker of Princeton is more straightforward and betrays the sort of sexual frustration we usually encounter in pop songs: a fetching young woman in a blue and white dress sits at a café table, inviting the viewer to want to know her better. But she’s masked, her hair is in her eyes, and her posture is firmly closed. How many chance encounters, interpersonal illuminations (not to mention melting kisses) have we lost to the pandemic? It hurts to think about it. The commuters captured in acrylic by Jay Pingree of Maplewood — a Jersey train town if there ever was one — appear to be melting into the day around them. There’s a grim promise that they’ll disintegrate long before they reach the office. Maybe they’re desperate to melt; maybe it’s a fate they have no tools to avoid.
Others demonstrate defiance in the face of the colossal forces that threaten to unravel us.
Mashell Black of Raritan is one of New Jersey’s most energetic oil painters, opting for vigorous, broad brushstrokes and generating a terrific sense of motion in everything he commits to canvas. “Father and Son,” a piece painted on wood, applies abstract expressionist techniques to human figuration. His brown-skinned subject is buffeted and stretched and nearly pulled apart by the strain of being. But his neck is strong, his chin is up, and he wears his weathered-white hair like a crown. Antoinette Ellis-Williams of Newark (and the NJCU Art Department) commits to paper a dissent in blue acrylic; at first, “Take a Knee for Justice” looks non-representational, but the more the viewer stares at it, the more the figure of a resolute protester takes shape.
ShinYoung An gives us nothing but a pair of thick, weary hands, one cradling the smartphone, the other scrolling through corrosive news stories. The Woodland Park artist knows that even if we don’t go outside, the storm of misfortune still reaches us, and still makes marks on our bodies. In this context, “The Weekend,” a seemingly pleasant oil painting by Daniel Finaldi of Highland Park, might be even sadder. We’re shown a meditative woman in a backyard. Her table is full of fruit, flowers stand at attention in a handsome glass vase, and the shrubs behind her are full and green. But her expression is plaintive. There is no sign of the neighbors, no promise of interaction, and the table is set for one.
It’s a testament to Vogelman’s smart curation that she manages to make the landscapes in the show feel human — sometimes loaded with the vibrations of human activity hidden or suppressed, and sometimes much like portraits where the subjects have slipped away. “Simpler Times,” by Gwynn Di Pilla of Haddonfield — an image of a vintage soda fountain sign hanging above a deserted Downtown street — is a watercolor so meticulously rendered that it approaches the quality of a photograph. It’s a demonstration of mastery, but it also suggests an artist with some time on her hands. Arthur Bruso of Jersey City confronts us with the bare, gray faces of apartment building walls, captured in gray paint and charcoal, impassive, distant, a little estranged. Even Michael Dal Cerro of Lyndhurst’s linocut city of the future, with stylish high-density towers, train stations, and terraces, is missing something essential: people.
In “Reemergence,” loneliness is on the loose in the Garden State; it permeates our yards and pushes us toward the clinics, separates us from our peers, and eats away at our fevered brains.
We may be a fractious state. We may love to fight, and we may not always enjoy listening to voices from the next county over. But after years of turmoil, we’ve started singing the same tune — perhaps accidentally, perhaps not.
The State Museum in Trenton will present “Reemergence” through April 30. Visit state.nj.us/state/museum.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.