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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 31, 2004

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Nicole Plett

Patriotism is a word and a concept that many of us are wrestling with right now. Back in the 1960s, it seemed safe to cede the territory to those noisy and ubiquitous "Hawks." Decades later, when so many want to see the American experiment in liberty, immigration, and participatory democracy succeed, patriotism is something many would like to reclaim.

Perhaps then the current climate caused me to experience the group show, "Hearing Voices: Personal Narratives," as an exuberant and energized celebration of the patriotic impulse. The exhibition of works by 16 artists of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, currently on view at the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Lawrenceville, is a place where the universal art impulse is gloriously harnessed to celebrate the light and the dark sides of these artists’ "melting pot" experience. Refined art techniques and synthetic iconography harvested from around the globe is brought to bear on the very American concerns of these immigrant and "non-white" artists. The bright and beckoning show is open weekdays and weekends through Sunday, April 11.

Greeting visitors at the entrance is a noble, elongated sculpted head in terra cotta by Elizabeth Catlett. Titled "Elvira," this exotic, self-possessed figure, perhaps marginalized but never truly suppressed by contemporary society, sets the tone for other thoughtful art explorations that follow.

In one corner, forming a sheltering umbrella for the group’s outpouring of artistic energy, are the graceful forms of Ming Fay’s suspended "Butterfly Twig," an invented parasol of light and gentle movement. Fay’s fabricated plant life radiates with the simple beauty of its materials and leaf-like forms: chamomile flowers set between hemp paper discs, supported by the gnarled limbs of faux branches.

Two African-American photographers, Leroy Henderson and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, each represented by a single black-and-white print, are well paired. Henderson’s tentative young ballerina and Ashe’s dancing bride each conveys the wistful melancholy of the everyday experience of black Americans.

Ela Shah, represented by three works on paper and two compelling painted wooden cutouts, seems to be one of the most optimistic and inventive members of the group. Her wonderfully expressive brushwork and dynamic figures, derived from the Indian painting tradition, convey to us the precarious baggage that the immigrant carries on his or her life’s journey. Her "Hang in There" girl is a tennis player in harem pants, appropriately equipped with the multiple arms of a Hindu god. These arms come in handy for her many interests, holding racquet, dumbbell, paintbrush, and more as the young woman reigns over a diminutive New York cityscape.

Equally exuberant is collage artist Barbara Bullock, represented by three big, colorful works – each of which uses strands of imagery from Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and North America to weave a personal iconography of the here and now. Bullock’s "Belief" (2002) is a striking synthesis of secular and profane; it suggests dwelling with a colorful striped snake winding its way across the roof. A cheerfully sentient tiger lies across the hearth, and floating within the shelter are two unadorned airborne human forms.

On a more solemn note is "Beloved," an image by New Jersey artist Siona Benjamin that suggests the slaughter of the innocents. Raised in India and Israel, Benjamin brings the Indian figurative tradition to her heartrending image of two martyred women, a Muslim and a Jew, whose severed and bloodied bodies are fused in a calm embrace. Despite the sometimes harsh content, Benjamin brings beauty, power, and legibility to each of the four figurative works shown here.

Peter Arakawa also makes a strong statement with a series of five works on paper that communicate his experience of finding himself as an American of Japanese ancestry. Equally affirming is Julia Cowing’s exploration of the continuity and conflict in her Chinese-American household. Family bonds that endure amidst cultural difference are manifest in Cowing’s luscious display of 12 seemingly prosaic color photographs.

To recapture a sense of what patriotism can mean, to celebrate the American immigrant’s journey, and to enjoy the great gifts that a diverse society can bestow on its members, "Hearing Voices" is not to be missed.

Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Route 206, Lawrenceville, 609-252-6275. "Hearing Voices: Personal Narratives," a group exhibition featuring works by 16 artists of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends, 1 to 5 p.m., through Sunday, April 11.


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