On a wall in Newark, a tribunal has assembled. Three dark-skinned women in white dresses stand shoulder to shoulder and stare back at the viewer. They’ve got their jewels on, their hair is gathered up in loose wraps, and their shoulders are back. They look formal, but not stiff. Their expressions hover between matronly concern and regal haughtiness. They’ve got somewhere to go — they don’t have the time to stop to inspect you, but since they’ve got your attention, they’ll give you their gentle disapproval.
Painter Madge Scott calls them “The Welcoming Committee,” and anyone with a stern aunt ought to recognize them immediately. Like many of the women who populate Scott’s paintings, they’re dressed for pocomania, a syncretic Jamaican folk religion rooted in African ritual and worship. Their clothing and accessories are culturally specific, but their attitude is universal. They have the righteousness of numbers and the confidence that comes from participation in devotional practice. They could be off to a Catholic church or a synagogue.
The members of the committee are three of the characters who populate “The Stories We Tell,” an engrossing exhibition of recent paintings that will hang at the Akwaaba Gallery in Newark until Sept. 16. The show, smartly curated by gallery-runner Laura Bonas Palmer, collects work from four very different artists united by their attention to narrative detail.
Scott’s busy assembly of pocomania practitioners greets visitors just in from South Orange Avenue; Mashell Black’s sizzling abstract pieces heat up the back of the gallery. In between, the Ghanaian artist Stephen Abban Junior treats us to a series of soothing portraits of young women, and Matilda Forsberg haunts gallerygoers with her smeared, psychologically trenchant images of families unmoored.
Each of the artists highlights a different element of dramatic storytelling. For Scott, that element is character. For Abban Junior, it is the repeated image. For Black, it’s energy and motion. For Forsberg, it’s time.
That is not to say that all four of these characteristics of a good story aren’t discernible in the works of each of these artists.
Abban Junior, for instance, plays with character, energy and sequence, too. He is also attuned to the expressive possibilities of his materials: ink, soil and acrylic applied to rough-woven burlap. His four subjects feel elemental, rooted and very close to the earth on which they walk. Each one carries a rustic oil lamp — and it’s this small detail, carried from panel to panel, that gives the series of paintings its narrative momentum.
In “Light Disposition,” the carrier’s lamp is unlit, held behind her back, as she turns her face to the sky in an entreaty for illumination. The young girl in “Hand Go Hand Come,” by contrast, holds two lamps, and enough oil to transfer the flame from one to the other. Her eyes are shut, and her faith in the natural processes that govern the transfer of heat and light is total.
In “Oil in Abundance,” the subject of the portrait stares straight at the viewer with an expression as bright and welcoming as the radiance that comes the spout of her lamp. Wherever the flame burns, the burlap paintings are rendered in color; when the lamp is still, the images are a deep twilight gray and brown.
In isolation, each of these paintings is winsome. Taken together, plot points in a spiritual quest: a visual essay on the relationship between desire and satisfaction, knowledge, wanting and having.
Black’s work, too, is always agitated, always rattling the frames and pushing at the corners of his canvases. Like the not-dissimilar Jersey artist Anthony E. Boone, Black makes work that simultaneously evokes the muscularity of abstract expressionism and the graffiti-inspired provocation of Basquiat and mural art. He loads up his brush and loads up his work with streaks as thick as cake icing and lets his paint splatter, bunch and drip.
Yet his images cohere: Many of them evoke faces, stretched and pulled emotional distortion. His big, vicious, subtly funny “Selfie” suggests the fang-toothed snap of a carnivorous plant. “Rain God,” painted this year, is a collision of face-like shapes and rough black and gray brush-sweeps against a road-sign yellow backdrop. The rivulets of paint that streak to the bottom of the piece suggest a deity none too pleased with the mortals below.
A subtler disquiet runs through the works of Newark-based Forsberg, who has quietly become one of the most intriguing and innovative visual storytellers in the Garden State. They’re studies of relatives, but they’re rarely too homey. Through a combination of body language and brushstrokes, she teases out and amplifies the entropic forces of separation and disengagement that tug at parents, children and domestic partners alike.
Sometimes her characters seem estranged from the viewer, too: their faces are blurred or their backs are turned or, as in “A Family Interlude,” they’re drifting toward a corner of a canvas and headed for an exit. While Forsberg’s big, colorful paintings don’t resemble a family photograph or a courtroom sketch, they’re heavy with the slow fade of memory and the diagnostic touch of the investigator. Something has gone on here; we’re not sure what, but we’re pretty sure it’s trouble.
Forsberg’s truest gift is her ability to inscribe the passage of time in her still paintings. A nearly faceless boy is incised from the rest of his austere-looking clan by a great sweep of yellow-pink paint and a savage fan blade. We don’t need to be told that he’s occupying a different rung on the temporal ladder than the rest of the characters — the chilling composure of the family and the wind-blown flowers dispel that ambiguity.
Thoughts are also petal-borne in “Currents,” in which a couple, backs turned to us, heads toward a swirling horizon where a tiny figure kneels in prayer. The protagonist is a child with a shadowed face, pushing a metal contraption. The painting pulses with the pain of loss and the slow ebb of people drifting, inexorably, out of reach.
Forsberg’s paintings, and the work of her three companions in “The Stories We Tell,” are reminders of just how much narrative complexity a painting can contain. These aren’t the kind of tales that wrap up tidily: Scott’s gorgeous, ghostly “New Place,” part of a Migration Series, portends happenstance to come, but isn’t going to say exactly what’s next for its huddle of displaced travelers under the full moon.
Forsberg’s “Forging a New Path,” an image of a child stepping tentatively into her own shadow, is a synecdoche for the show. These paintings hint and allude, tease and leave the viewer wanting to know more. The best stories do that. They leave you with something to wonder about — and something to come home to.
“The Stories We Tell” runs through Sept. 16 at Akwaaba Gallery in Newark; visit akwaabagallery.com.
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