Bayonne feels refreshingly un-renovated. Those broad and busy blocks contain some new buildings, but most of the businesses give the impression that they’ve been around awhile. Clothing stores, pharmacists, Italian bakeries and sub shops, hair salons: The proprietors behind these places picked a font and an aesthetic in the ’80s, or earlier, and they have felt no need to stay up to date. Neighboring towns to the north might be aggressively expunging traces of the past but Bayonne retains its peculiar visual character, unbudging, a little rough around its edges, trend-free, reminiscent of the way cities used to look in the decades before the millennium turned.
Bayonne has its fine artists, too. And art galleries, though not so many of them. The Dollhaus II, at 23 Cottage St., shares the character of its town: It’s unpretentious, approachable and more rewarding to investigate than it initially looks. Through April 9, the little space in the shadow of the light rail embankment will be showing 12 works by one of the city’s own.
Joe Waks is a Bayonne original, and “Parade of Values — Defenders of Freedom!” — a smart, concise, entertaining exhibition of new paintings — is a wry but unmistakably affectionate engagement with the visual styles of days gone by. Waks’ pieces speak the language of mid-20th century consumer illustrations, advertising circulars, product packaging, coupons and vintage shop signs. The painter is drawn to anachronism and juxtaposition, and he’s not shy about piling image on top of image on top of logos, and ladling advertising copy over the whole thing. With its playfully violent imagery, overt sex appeal, images of democratized opulence and entreaties to spend!, spend!, spend!, it may give you flashbacks to the experience of opening the classified pages of a newspaper.
Prior pieces by Waks were acerbic. “Parade of Values” is gently satirical. The care with which the artist reanimates tropes from the ’50s and ’60s and the compositional balance of his canvases suggests genuine appreciation for the arm-twisting tactics of old advertisements and pamphlets. He’s like a scholar speaking in language that’s mostly forgotten, but not quite dead, and still capable of metaphorical power and humor.
To bring his characters to life, he thickens his newsprint-black paint with beeswax, which gives his lines a texture reminiscent of bunched electrical tape. The background of these pieces is the pale yellow of an ancient Jersey Journal clipping in an auntie’s basement, and he’s adorned the canvases with big polka dots in sun-faded colors. From a distance, they look like prints, or pages from old periodicals pasted to panels. Only when you have stared at a “Parade of Values” painting for a while will you realize how meticulously he has made these pieces.
That means the big block letters of a Grand Opening announcement hover over an advertisement for Oscar Mayer bologna (only 63 cents!) without obscuring either pitch. In another painting, the Goodyear Blimp flies dangerously close to a church steeple while a pretty girl walking a stegosaurus maintains a collision course with a Hellenistic warrior in the center of the canvas. A station wagon parks above the head of a hula dancer in a grass skirt, a six pack of RC Cola and a Thanksgiving dinner complete with solemn pilgrims; a woman steers a lawnmower toward a McDonald’s dinner and a cloud of Lysol; a grinning baby doll appears to be kicking a platoon of soldiers in the head while the RCA Victor dog, oblivious to it all, attends only to his master’s voice.
Because all of this is rendered so precisely by the painter, Waks packs a lot of meaning into his tight rectangles. The pieces in “Parade of Values” are fiercely legible. Though they’re amalgams of images from the not-so-recent past, the artist gets them to speak univocally about the desperation of commerce and the insatiable American hunger for stuff.
Consumption, Waks seems to believe, is our fixation: an obsession that generates fever dreams in the national unconscious. Yet it is also clear that the painter has real love for the throwaway iconography of the old newspaper, the expedient art decoration of the mailed circular, and the posters in the grocery storefront. He stops short of celebrating the frantic salesmanship that characterizes the American version of the commercial project, but admires its directness, and maybe its shamelessness as well. “Parade of Values” pokes fun at the past, but it reminds us that it was boisterous. Removed as we are from the old bologna ads, gasoline signs and cartoon depictions of blushing girls, perhaps we can appreciate them as crude but effective expressions of messed-up creative minds. May our current capitalist tools age half as well.
The Dollhaus II in Bayonne presents Joe Waks’ “Parade of Values — Defenders of Freedom!” through April 9. Visit xdollhausx.com.
For more on Waks, visit joewaks.com.
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