‘I’ve come in search of ‘America,’” I say to New Jersey State Museum (NJSM) guard when I arrive to see “America: Through Artists’ Eyes,” on view through Sunday, August 16.
For “America: Through Artists’ Eyes,” on view through Sunday, August 16, artists were asked to define and depict America in the visual manner most appropriate to their own personal ideology, style, and convictions. Some artists balked at first, saying they weren’t political or didn’t feel patriotic.
The exhibition was originally proposed by Princeton Artist Alliance (PAA) member Nancy Lee Kern. She had seen an exhibition featuring a collector’s American Parade flags at Morven Museum and Garden in 2011 and left thinking about the flag as symbol, as well as the long American history it represents.
NJSM curator Margaret O’Reilly encouraged PAA members to collaborate with artists who had very different life experiences than they themselves had. In addition, she invited artists not involved in the group to participate in the exhibition, to present a broader range of ideas from diverse backgrounds. Kern died in spring, 2014, and “America” is dedicated to her memory (as well as including her work).
In the gallery, calling my attention, is “1985” by Will “Kasso” Condry. From a distance I thought I was looking at an aerial view of a city, a network of tiny clusters of housing and ribbons of roads. I could see cars and trucks, headlights flashing at me. This was America.
Up close I thought maybe it is a bottleneck, or even the neck of a person, choked by the urban clusters of housing and traffic. Reading Condry’s statement, I learn he was motivated by the crack epidemic in his Trenton neighborhood in the mid 1980s. He saw crack vials littering the streets, but through his artist’s eyes the bright colors of the vial caps stood out, and the deadly substance they represented. He also observed a large tree at the entrance to one of the projects — at its base were not only the vials but the broken shards of glass.
Cranford photographer Thomas Francisco also ponders what it means to be in America today — the number of people out of work, and those who must hold two or more jobs to make ends meet. Those lucky enough to have just one job work longer hours for less pay.
He represents this, and more, with unraveled raw canvas that takes the shape of stars and stripes. It’s the American flag devoid of the richness of color, and without any semblance of order. America gone awry.
Next to Francisco’s “flag” is a jolt of color by Trenton graffiti writer Leon Rainbow in “Land of the Free” — the bold letters stamped over a colorful painting of a prison guard tower. Rainbow, who lives two blocks from New Jersey State Prison, passes the towers daily. “I always think about how big it is, and how horrible it must be to be in there,” he writes. “If you commit a crime you deserve to go to jail. But what if the system is set up for you to go to jail?” he posits, then cites statistics: the U.S. spends six times more on prisons that education.
India-born Montclair artist Ela Shah combines Indian goddesses with American pop culture icons — whom she considers part of a sort of contemporary mythology — to create a biographical piece. At the heart of the found object piece is a video that includes scenes traveling under the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, a goddess playing soccer, capuchin monkeys, and a dizzying drive on a suburban road. The video is projected on a wooden soccer ball, coming out from carved wooden doors where Hindu goddesses stand watch.
“The action of the soccer ball represents the back and forth between two cultures that I experienced numerous times since I emigrated from India,” Shah writes. “Juggling between two worlds gave me plenty of dreams, freedom, and hope on my spiritual journey.”
Rajie Cook, the New Jersey-raised and Washington Crossing-based designer responsible for universal symbols (those little black figures on the restroom door) has a video here, “Past-Ports,” about his father, Najeeb Esa Cook, born in Palestine in 1886. It is “a story of the American dream about hard work and ambition, family and love. It is about finding a home between two different worlds,” writes the son. Najeeb worked endlessly to earn money — as a peddler in Philadelphia, a restaurateur in Chicago, a miner in Bonne Terry, Missouri. He laid railroad track and built freight cars. The elder Cook ultimately earned success as a linens salesman.
Speak of hard work, Harry I. Naar has created one of his largest most detailed canvases for this show, an ink drawing of the American landscapes that bends in the corner to wrap around adjoining gallery walls, giving a sense that you are inside the landscape.
“One of the first images that comes to mind when I think of America is the length, breadth, and physical beauty of our country’s landscapes,” writes the Lawrenceville-based Naar. Here he is depicting Yosemite National Park. It “reflects my ideas of the strength, power and unusual formations in nature. At the same time, it fulfills my ideas about the abstract qualities of nature and markmaking.”
Skillman artist Shellie Jacobson’s installation of three hanging garments, “Vote,” is made from a patchwork of news clippings from the women’s suffrage movement.
Shoshanna Weinberger of Newark reinvents the American flag in “Mend Thine Ev’ry Flaw: The American Pin-Ups.” The title is taken from the poem “America” by Katherine Lee Bates (which became “American the Beautiful”). Made of 50 pinups — a black figure with a prominent derriere, a big Afro, black boots, black-and-white striped breasts, and lips in either red or pink — each represents a state. Although they appear identical at first, each is unique. “I wanted to play with the concept of variation and unique distinction within each figure, to represent those characteristics in our history as a union of the states,” writes the Newark resident. “Each contributes to the whole to form our nation.” Each is titled after a state flower. The black-and-white stripes represent the artist’s biracial descent as a Caribbean-American.
As a contrast, Thomas Francisco’s “Made in China” is a large photograph of 120 pairs of Converse All Stars, made of canvas that looks like it was cut from the American flag. “‘Made in America’ was a label once proudly stamped on products manufactured in America by American craftsmen,” he writes. “It was valued as a mark of superior quality and workmanship.
Cook creates his own kind of American flag from cat food tins painted red, white, and blue. Alongside is a note of gratitude from the kitty, Toby, about eating the best food a cat could ever imagine, living the American dream. Only in America.
PAA member Anita Benarde fills her canvas “Let Freedom Speak” with images that convey freedom of expression. “Whatever rolls off our tongues is permissible,” she writes. “I wanted the viewer to hear the sound of voices without actual sound. The rhythm and beat of numerous conversations carried out the sentiment.”
Fellow member Zenna Broomer worked with the A-Team Artists of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen to create “US-A-Team.” Broomer selected individual pieces to create a single vision, using silkscreen, and the images are both patriotic and show “a raw but vibrant interpretation of the artist’s fears, dreams, joy, music, and dance. The result is an aspirational piece casting a mainly positive light on the artist’s lines in the gritty inner city.”
Broomer also creates her own depiction of the New Jersey Turnpike. An immigrant from Great Britain, Broomer arrived in the U.S. under the twinkling lights of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge “conscious of the extreme clarity of the light and the clear cobalt sky.” Aerial views of the turnpike and oil refineries near Newark have long fascinated her.
What would America be without rush hour? Barbara G. Watts of Monroe Township captures the feeling of commuting on a rainy gray day, people huddled under umbrellas, inspired by her own “commuting back and forth on the subway, standing on lines, rushing for trains, being shoved into cars, and standing shoulder to shoulder, back to back, among commuters” during her college years at Pratt and Cooper Union, and later in an art department “bull pen” and a publishing company.
Princeton artist Jim Perry’s “Totems” of mahogany were inspired by the “monolithic emblems of America — redwood trees, totems, and skyscrapers. These all reflect the American spirit.” With undulating curves, they speak to each other, dancing to their own rhythms. Dancing to America.
The exhibition also features works by artists Joanne Augustine (Rocky Hill), Hetty Baiz (Princeton), Joy Barth (Ewing), Siona Benjamin (Montclair), Jennifer Cadoff (Princeton), Clem Fiori (Blawenburg), Carol Hanson (Princeton), Margaret Kennard Johnson (Princeton), Maria Lau (Jersey City), Charles McVicker (Princeton), Lucy Graves McVicker (Princeton), Everlyn Nyadenya (Princeton), Tamara Ramos (Trenton), Richard Sanders (Princeton), Madelaine Shellaby (Belle Mead), and Marie Sturken (Princeton).
America: Through Artists’ Eyes, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton.Tuesday through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., through Sunday, August 16, suggested admission requested. 609-292-6464 or www.nj.gov/state/museum.