A new exhibit in Trenton uses small works of art to tell a bigger story

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

Recent footage of the Jersey Shore shows it torn asunder, with the beach on the wrong side of the boardwalk, if there’s still a boardwalk. Jonas Lie’s painting of a beach house, on view in the New Jersey State Museum’s Size Matters exhibit, depicts a placid place, a beach devoid of bathers, reminding us of the quiet retreat the Jersey Shore was a century ago.

The works in Size Matters may be diminutive – none is larger than 12 inches in any direction – but they tell big stories. In some cases you may need to stand close to see the detail, but you will spend a good amount of time looking. Just as in a well-written short story, every component matters.

Charles Ward, known for his New Deal murals, including three in downtown Trenton, is represented by two prints that are no larger than a 35mm contact print. One shows a man sitting on a bench, birds at his feet. Did the artist feel small while making this tiny image?

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“When working small, overall composition and the scale of the elements that make up the work become critical,” said Curator of Fine Arts Margaret O’Reilly. “Because there is so little space to work within, every element included in the work takes on added importance. Each line, shape, color, texture must be carefully considered to ensure that it does not become a distracting element… Small works require the viewer to move in for a closer look and to discover the importance of each element.”

O’Reilly had been researching landscapes and looking through the drawers of works on paper in the collection when she came across the small Oscar Bluemner works on view here. “We have two major paintings by Bluemner, as well as 40 to 50 of these small studies,” she said of the German-born American Modernist. Bluemner had been part of Stieglitz’s circle, though not as well known, and painted many scenes of New Jersey. At the same time, she came across small works by self-taught artist Gregory Van Maanen, who exorcises memories of the Vietnam War, in which he served, through artmaking. Skulls and eyeballs predominate in his larger works, as well as these two small acrylics.

“All of a sudden the idea of ‘little’ began reverberating,” said O’Reilly. “Small works don’t get shown very often, because they would get lost next to larger paintings.”

Since size, and not style or time period, is the unifying theme, laying them out in a cohesive way presented a challenge. “Creating a dialogue between the works was the fun part,” she said.

The works in Size Matters are from 1876 to contemporary times, and include such artists as Alex Katz, Max Weber, Ben Shahn, Elsie Driggs, William Wegman and John Marin, among others.

“I kept coming back to Bluemner,” she says of the artist who had no recognition in his lifetime and took his own life. “I started with his sketches, grouping them together, to see what would work with them.” She paired them with landscapes of different time periods to show the breadth of artists approaching the same subject matter.

She also grouped together a series with birds. “The birds are like characters in a play,” she says. “Kids get it right away – they’re really looking. I didn’t know I had works this small until I went through them,” she said of the one-inch Charles Ward prints.

In some cases the art is preparatory for larger works, but sometimes these are the final works. Ruth Vollmer’s sculptural work “Oscule,” in wax, is a model for a bronze in the same size.

The smallest work in the show is Berendina Buist’s “Wrevenge is rong, Eye for a Tooth and Tooth for an Eye” — in fact the title is bigger than the work, a pupil and a tooth on toothpick-size pedestals.

O’Reilly hopes the small works will lead viewers to the larger exhibit of permanent works in the State Museum’s American Perspectives collection, where there is a large canvas of Paterson – also known as Silktown – by Bluemner, in which the colors take on the brilliant colors of the dyes used in that city’s factories. Bluemner, an architect who designed Bronx Borough Hall but was robbed of the recognition, turned to painting, making drawings and watercolors of buildings in New York. He traveled to Europe and, exposed to Modernism, returned with a new intensity of color, exploring Cubism and prismatic color.

“These are little gems,” said O’Reilly of the works in Size Matters. “You can be having a bad day and come and look and suddenly all is right with the world.” And after our storms, a visit to the State Museum, where admission is always free, could be just the right size.

Size Matters: Small Works from the Fine Art Collection at the New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State St., Trenton, is on view through Dec. 30. Hours: Tues.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Admission is free. 609-292-6464.

The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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