In the paintings of Jose Anico, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1996, we get a strong sense of the industrial landscape of places like New Jersey. With a strip of greenery and a river in the foreground, and under a dramatic big sky, we see oil refineries, high tension wires, smokestacks, warehouses, and ribbons of asphalt. Some of the titles are “Forbidden Zone,” “Three Towers,” and “Nobis Hic in Terris (We Are Here on Earth)” These places strike a familiar chord, places we might see when driving to Roosevelt or Trenton or Newark, or outside the window when riding NJ Transit.
In “Myth of Triumph,” a triptych that measures 14 feet, we are presented with an aerial view of the Earth through the viewfinder of a weapon, with calibrated markings for the target. We see various explosions on this landscape. In the two side panels, suspended from ropes tied in a noose, are the remains of our existence: a loaf of bread and camo fatigues. The painting, which took three years to complete, will be part of “Ready or Not: 2014 New Jersey Arts Annual: Fine Art,” at the Newark Museum Friday, June 27, through Sunday, September 7.
One recent morning, Anico was framing the work in his West Windsor studio, a space he converted from a former garage. Anico added more windows and a skylight, insulation, and a floor. There are shelves and cabinets for tidy storage.
“It emerged during the war with Iraq, which I was listening about in the news,” says Anico of “Myth of Triumph.” “Every work of art is a personal necessity. I would think about those young people going there. It’s about the misery, the victims, the human atrocity. It’s about hunger and conflict. The focal point is an area in conflict, with war, deforestation, and environmental problems.”
It’s not clear to Anico who is the victim and who is the victimizer. “It’s about the primitive part of the brain,” he says.
In the side panels, he did not want to ask, “How do we tie a bread? It has have a different meaning. It represents hunger.”
The items dangling from rope bring to mind various airlift operations, where food was lowered by plane, the same planes that dropped bombs. The right panel, with the fatigues, represents the absence of the individual, the victim, says the artist.
“I always knew I had to show it in a big space.” He’d thought of shipping it for the Dominican Biennial art exhibition but it would cost too much.
“As a person I am interested in socio-political ideas. As an artist I am interested in how to represent them conceptually,” he writes on the website of the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, where Anico’s work will be on view in a two-person show, along with the work of Jane Adriance, Thursday, June 5, through Sunday, July 6.
“My interest is in the environment, and I want to portray the denigration of the landscape but to paint it as beautiful, the way I see it,” he says. He paints a big sky and industrialization along the distant horizon because “We take little responsibility for the space where we live. When you go outside you mostly see the sky. You see more sky than ground. The air is polluted, and I want to show how little we are against the vastness of the sky. This is how much we have destroyed.”
Anico has been interested in the changing condition of the natural world since his Dominican boyhood. At 14, he planted trees as part of a community project. “My parents taught us to be good people,” says Anico, who has seven siblings. To support them his mother worked in government service, but his father never held a regular job — unemployment hovers between 14 and 30 percent in the country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Neither of Anico’s parents were educated. “My mother came from a smart family, and she always encouraged our education,” he says. “She had vision in everyday life.” His grandfather, a farmer, invented tools to help him reach and pump water, or whatever else was needed to grow his crops.
At 14, Jose went to the Fine Art School of Santiago. From 1988 to 1991 he studied art and architecture in Moscow, “but I was lost there. They were undergoing a big transition (following Perestroika).” In 1996 he earned a scholarship to finish his studies at Parson’s School of Design in New York. He went on to earn an MFA in painting and drawing from the New York Academy of Art, where he was awarded the Eric Fischl Scholarship and Prince of Wales Fellowship.
Anico met his wife, the former manager of publishing operations for LexisNexis, in Central Park. The young couple lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, then moved to Montclair, and ultimately West Windsor in 2008, when she was working for the Princeton office of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit that helps the academic community use digital technologies.
When he’s not watching his children or working on his painting, Anico teaches at Mercer County Community College, the Arts Council of Princeton and Princeton Adult School. “I don’t teach for the money but for the service,” he says. “I like to get out of the studio and talk.” English is his second language, learned when he came to the U.S. at age 28.
In addition to his socio-political paintings, Anico creates formal still lifes of plants, flowers, and fruit alongside books and newspapers. The newspaper as a subject represents a kind of poetry to him. “Whether the news is bad or good, it shows that time passes, full of the stuff we hear every day. I like the color and how it interacts with the light.” But don’t try to actually read the news stories from his paintings — that’s not what they’re for.
He distinguishes his “easy work,” as in easy to look at, from his “honest work.” But he doesn’t have to paint easy work to sell — his December, 2013, show at Artists’ Gallery sold out.
“But I would do this work regardless of whether it’s saleable. It’s what I believe in. After years of thinking about where I wanted to guide my work it came to me. I love to paint outside, to be in nature. After years of thinking about the land we’ve destroyed, I finally figured out how to put it in my art.”
He takes notes and makes sketches on location, then develops the paintings in his studio.
Anico uses his two children, ages 8 and 10, as models, lone figures against a desolate New Jersey landscape with phragmites and oil refineries, a girl in a pink raincoat or a white gown with factories and a water tower in the background, or a young boy in a watch cap with a shipping area in the distance. These are drawn in tinted charcoal, and then covered with a glaze. We can recognize scenes from Trenton and along the Delaware and Raritan Canal Towpath. Wastelands near train tracks, or a dirt road for service vehicles — these catch his eye, and Anico imparts beauty. “We’re making the area more dead looking, and what happened here is happening everywhere,” he says. “The place itself looks foreign and brown, but I like it. The abandoned area in winter has a trace of the human.”
In “What’s Going On,” we see a group of people, clad in coats, on a street that could be Trenton or Lambertville, looking up at the sky, beyond the electrical lines from the utility poles. What are they looking at? Anico wants the viewer to wonder.
“I want to present what is going on in my surroundings,” says Anico. “I want the viewer to keep going and see what it is.”
Jose Anico and Jane Adriance, Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville. Thursdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Opens Thursday, June 5, and continues through Sunday, July 6. An opening reception is set for Saturday, June 7, 5 to 8 p.m. Free. 609-397-4588 or www.lambertvillearts.com.
Ready or Not: 2014 New Jersey Arts Annual: Fine Art, Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark. Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., Friday, June 27, through Sunday, September 7. Suggested admission $7 to $12. www.newarkmuseum.org or 973-596-6550.