At the height of the lockdown period, faces were scarcer on canvases than they were on the streets. Galleries and museums turned, instead, to stark, depopulated landscapes, decorative design and outright abstraction. We didn’t want to think about our bodies. We were looking for an escape.
As the lid loosened, the figure began to return to the spotlight — sometimes tentatively, and sometimes with the crazed, full-bodied defiance of a streaker at a ballgame. We welcomed back the portrait and the bust, the crowd scene, and the play of shadows and silhouettes. Yet representations of the body aren’t what they were in 2019. Marks of trauma and struggle were plainly visible. Some of the best shows of the year depicted signs of human activity, but not too many humans. In these shows, absence spoke louder than presence did.
My list of the best exhibitions I saw in New Jersey in 2023 reflects this. In many of these shows, people are missing, or implied, or only half-there: a walker reflected, darkly, in a window; a hollowed-out space where an ancestor once stood; a prisoner confined in a tiny house; a father lost in a housefire. Artists flooded the frames with personal objects but merely alluded to the possessors of all that stuff. Maybe they’d be back to claim their items. Maybe they wouldn’t.
After averting eyes from an unfolding disaster, creators spent the year reckoning with loss.
But it wasn’t all gloom. Every one of these 12 prickly, tempestuous shows contained expressions of joy. Frivolity and humor shared space in these frames, and on these gallery floors, with pain, horror, bewilderment and loneliness. It was, in other words, a lot like life.
Okay, let’s count them down, with links to my full reviews.
12: “Michael Dal Cerro: The Infinite City” at the Monmouth Museum, Lincroft
Who wants to live in Michael Dal Cerro’s impossible cities? Who would inhabit the towns in these dense frames, crammed corner to corner with Jenga-stacked buildings, pipelines, roadways, train tracks and hanging gardens, all harmonized in lovely, coordinated spring and autumn colors? Not too many people, it seems. Though public transit runs, ferociously, and some horticulturist must be manicuring the plants, there is hardly a soul in sight. Dal Cerro’s invigorating, hilarious and occasionally troubling prints simultaneously poked fun at New Urbanism and celebrated its ecological aspirations. They were also masterworks of spatial relations, with tower blocks like stair steps, viaducts like ribbons, and terraces of concrete climbing to the invisible sky. Part SimCity 3000, part sci-fi, part Disney Contemporary and part Dr. Seuss, “The Infinite City” felt like a peek at a forgotten future — one elevated, broad-minded and curiously depopulated.
11: “Joe Waks: Parade of Values — Defenders of Freedom!” at Dollhaus II, Bayonne
His paintings are so funny and so pointed that they would be entertaining in any context where you might encounter them. But if you’d really like to understand the art of Joe Waks, you are advised to take a trip to his hometown of Bayonne. The oft-overlooked city at the southern end of the Hudson County peninsula is busy with shop signs, many of which don’t seem to have been updated since the 1970s or even earlier. Old advertisements find their way into Waks’ pieces, where they jostle for space alongside coupon-style product images, vintage cartoons and logos, and block text in “Dewey Defeats Truman” Era fonts. In “Parade of Values — Defenders of Freedom!,” an exhibition mounted in a room that’s about as far south in Bayonne as a person can go, Waks rendered all of this in thick, black, beeswax-saturated paint on a newsprint-yellow background festooned with pastel polka dots. Was he gently sending up American consumerism or marveling at the ideological resourcefulness of the mid-century marketers who brought it to the masses? How about a little of both?
10: “The Brodsky Center at Rutgers University: Three Decades, 1986-2017” at Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick
That’s one dry handle for an extremely lively exhibition. “Three Decades” (which remains open through Dec. 22) traces the establishment and evolution of an audacious printmaking center at Rutgers (it’s since defected to Philadelphia) dedicated to amplifying the voices of women and people of color. That the Brodsky Center did. Just as vitally, Brodsky artists made the case that printing was as expressive as painting or sculpture. Not many were willing to advance that claim in the ’80s, but the Brodsky Center promoted printing by example, and drew unexpected connections between paper art, textile art and body art. This sweeping overview includes pieces by Newark’s celebrated Chakaiah Booker, who contributes a tumbleweed of paper filament; the great storytelling artist Elizabeth Catlett; and Philip Orenstein, whose ocean liner triptych takes on the authoritarian Soviet Union, the darker elements of American history, and indecisive Europe, in transit between the two Cold War poles. Artist by artist and work by fantastic work, this exhibition demonstrates just how much force there was in that heavy press.
9: “Allan Gorman: Searching for Drama” at BrassWorks Gallery, Montclair
Painter Allan Gorman loves the undersides of bridges, the pylons holding up elevated rail, the rhythms of fenestrations in apartment buildings, and the mystery of closed doors in back alleys. He sees the poetry in the big rivets that hold together steel girders, but he’s not so enraptured that he’s blind to their structural utility. In this exhibition (open through Dec. 15), he records the play of light on the plate glass exteriors of skyscrapers and captures the dusty dignity of sunbeams as they peek through blinds and metal slats of guardrails. In short, he’s alive and present to the urban landscape, and in tune with the ways in which it reflects our lofty aspirations and our immediate needs. He went searching for drama and he found it everywhere he looked. I suspect he knew he would.
8: “Lance Weiler: Where There’s Smoke” at ArtYard, Frenchtown
At the check-in desk, you were given an explorer’s flashlight, a set of headphones, and a piece of paper to scribble your impressions. Then you were led to a darkened replica of a suburban house, illuminated by the yellow-orange of blown-up backlit photographs of buildings on fire. These were not artist’s impressions: they were real shots, taken by installation artist Lance Weiler’s late father Robert, an amateur firefighter who might also have been a pyromaniac. As you moved around the space, voiceovers shared stories from the artist’s childhood — some humorous, some chilling, all designed to enhance the experience of sifting through piles of clues taken from the Weiler closets. Lance Weiler burned to know: Did his dad try to burn down his family’s home? By the end of the exhibition, you shared the son’s suspicions. The riddle of this troubling, psychologically complicated show was left unresolved, but the themes of abandonment, miscommunication and the frailty of the human body could be clearly discerned through the billowing smoke.
7: “Danielle Scott: Ancestral Call” at Gallery Aferro, Newark
In “King Constance,” one of the many ghostly episodes in “Ancestral Call,” three people were present. One, an African American child, was haloed. Another, a wary adult and possibly a parent, wore a heavy crown. The facial features of the last one, a baby, were grayed out and smudged. He or she looked like someone we recalled, but whose face we didn’t exactly remember. Then there were the empty spaces in the frame, roughly human-shaped and filled with text. Other specters, less distinct but nonetheless present, hung in the corners of the room. Like many of Danielle Scott’s other intense, emotional paper cutout assemblies, “Constance” depicted a family — what could be recovered of it, anyway. How do African Americans hold on to their heritage and lineage in a hostile environment? How does any American stand up to the forces of erasure (time, faulty memory, the hegemony of the dominant thread of historical storytelling)? Genealogical books in the back of the gallery gave an indication, but Scott knows that registers are only a small part of the picture. The tough task of reconstruction? That’s on us.
6. “Lisa Lackey: It’s Not Paint!” at the Hillside Gallery, Montclair
Lisa Lackey expects you to mistake her medium for something other than what it is. Her broad fields of color, intricate lines and depictions of shadows do look as if they were applied by brush. But everything you see in a Lackey piece is composed from fabric. “It’s Not Paint!” (which remains open through Dec. 15) finds the textile artist in control of her plush process, stretching herself (and her thread) to realize effects that are often daring, sometimes mystifying, and always lovely to look at. It also shows Lackey growing into virtuosity: the newer pieces like “Reflections,” a study of a diner seen through commercial plate glass, are both busier and more brilliant than the ones she stitched together a few years ago. The jaw-dropping, well-named “It’s Complicated” traces the angle of sunlight as it falls through the latticework of a wicker deck chair and onto the patio floor. If that were all there were to Lackey, she’d still be worthy of this list. It’s not. Her street scenes and elaborate interiors are negotiations between the indoors and outdoors, and meditations on the limits of domestic space. Sometimes she shows up in her own work. Sometimes she merely casts a long shadow. But she’s always present: a highly intelligent guide who leads with invention, good humor and pointed questions.
5: “Claybash” at Hunterdon Art Museum, Clinton
From the outside, the Hunterdon Art Museum looks like a stately, conservative riverside building. Yet its galleries have become a playground for experimental clay-shapers and textile artists — full of color, thunder, impertinence and defiance of expectations. The well-named “Claybash” collected work from 42 ceramicists pushing the expressive limits of their medium, sometimes with the assistance of three-dimensional computer modeling, and sometimes guided only by anarchic imagination. No teapots here, in other words. Many of the best pieces in the show, like Wendy Liss’ “Surge,” were exercises in pure abstraction, textural contrast and creative energy. Chad Curtis fired spaghetti-thin ribbons of clay in nests, loops and heaps; Doug Herren squared its edges until it took on the character of an industrial contraption; Brian Peters sliced it into thin rings, stacked them into a stovepipe, and let waxlike beads of clay ooze out from between the layers. This was a competition, though given how well the pieces interacted, you’d never know it. In my assessment, everybody won.
4: “Jairo Alfonso: Objectscapes” at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit
Here was a truck, there was a dartboard, there was a motorcycle, here was a mattress and a foosball table. Over there was a beat-up Radio Shack synthesizer, a Vespa, a skateboard, a fan, a Darth Vader helmet, a toaster, a thousand other consumer items meticulously rendered in watercolor on a massive sheet of paper. Jairo Alfonso opened the door on the most crowded garage inhabitable: a repository of objects, crafts, heirlooms and other residue of human activity. Other landscapes didn’t even seem to have a floor — heaps of stuff simply floated together in space, subject to the tides and the vagaries of chance. Yet these were not pictures of dumps. Things in Alfonso’s heaps were functional: grimy and banged up, yes, but ready to be pulled from the pile and used if their owners ever showed up to claim them. Many of the pieces in these mesmerizing amalgams had religious or cultural significance. Others tethered the artist to his community in urban Hudson County. “Objectscapes” rounded up that which spilled from the overstuffed closets of our identity and spoke, powerfully, to the curious persistence of personality, even when there wasn’t anybody in sight.
3: “Valerie Huhn: In Whose Image?” at the Arts Council of Princeton
When the cops come to take your fingerprints, they’ll dip your digits in black ink and press them against a white blotter. They’re trying to make your marks of distinction easily legible and classifiable, stash-able in a cabinet or computer file for use in future surveillance. Valerie Huhn works with fingerprints, too — her own. Pointedly, black and white are the only colors she won’t use. Hers come in a shifting rainbow of bright colors. Sometimes, there’s glitter in the ink, too. She leaves her bright marks on scrolls of paper as big as portraits; she leaves them on stones and slips them in a light-up drawer like a specimen case; she vexes the impassive surface of mirrors with them. Mostly, she stamps them on acetate, cuts them out into tiny, translucent circles, affixes those discs to stickpins, and drives the pointed end into ordinary objects: sofas, shoes, books. In so doing, she gives those items a second skin, colorful and light-sensitive, graced by the caress of her one-of-a-kind sets of loops and whorls. In the most unnerving and affecting piece in this exhibition, she applied the business end of her fingerprint-adorned stickpins into the rungs of a ladder composed of the rounded plastic utensils used in prison cafeterias. Through the liberatory power of her unruly identity, she promised us an escape.
2: “Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage” at Bainbridge House, Princeton
Ideographic written languages are a step closer to pure artistic expression than alphabetic ones are. Their characters are already little pictures. Nsibidi, a language system from southern Nigeria, consists of ideograms that have been used by the Igbo and Ekoi peoples for centuries. They’re also favored by Victor Ekpuk, a Nigerian-born, Washington D.C.-based painter and sculptor whose works are boisterously busy with hundreds of Nsibidi symbols. In his scrawled but steady hand, he makes these characters feel beautiful and discursive, communicating pent-up energy, longing, conflict and desire. Ekpuk sculpts a Nsibidi headdress out of steel and fills a face with boisterous ideograms. Code descends on his human figures like a cloud. Some are engulfed by language; some strain, nobly, to command it. A man in a cramped cell, exiled from discourse, cranes his head to the sky as a hailstorm of Nsibidi symbols fall on the roof of his prison. Some of these pieces were combative, and a few were harrowing. But the artist, a former political cartoonist, maintained his balance, and his belief that language is both a connection to our common human past and a key to our deliverance. He’s just serving it to us in an unorthodox manner — in signs and symbols that you won’t be able to read, but which you’ll instantly recognize.
1. “Vanessa German: … please imagine all the things i cannot say …” at Montclair Art Museum
For his military exploits, his leadership and his bravery under duress, we call George Washington the father of our country. Surely his actions were heroic. But what about the common nobility of people who are estranged from the conventional sources of American power? Aren’t they worthy of veneration, too? Vanessa German thinks so. She turns Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of the general standing tall amid the ice floes at the Battle of Trenton into a huge, sensational sculpture made of cast-offs, knick-knacks, doilies, porcelain dolls, old library books and grocery bags, seashells and African masks. Once seen, “LaQuisha Washington Crosses the Day Aware” is impossible to forget. It plays, simultaneously, on national pride and our national shame. The characters in German’s life-sized boat sail with dignity, even as they are saddled with markers of their domestic and emotional responsibilities. Yet they row through a sea of blue laundry-rolls with crutches, and they fly their flag upside down.
“LaQuisha” was the centerpiece of the best show mounted in New Jersey in 2023, but it was only a part of “… please imagine all the things i cannot say …,” a thrilling, upsetting, relentlessly provocative array of statues assembled from objects that were, likely, already considered old-fashioned when your grandmother was alive. That means antique hand-mirrors, mantlepiece clocks, biscuit tins, and toys and statuettes of questionable taste. Each one bore the mark of human use and disuse; each told a story of its own. German bound them together and locked them into place, and they added up to something as spectacular and singular, wounded and triumphant, as an ordinary human being.
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