Artist paints beauty into the desolate N.J. landscape

In order to get a sense of a place like the Dominican Republic, you might look to its writers — Junot Diaz, say, or Julia Alvarez; you might watch its films, or study its visual art.

Yet from the paintings of Jose Anico, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1996, we get a strong sense of the industrial landscape of 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, ribbons of asphalt. These places strike a familiar chord, places we might see when driving to Trenton or Newark, or outside the window when riding NJ Transit.

“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 June 5 through July 6.

On a recent morning, Anico was framing artwork in his West Windsor studio, a space he converted from a former garage. “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. I want to show how little we are against the vastness of the sky. This is how much we have destroyed.”

The artist first learned to speak English when he came to the U.S. at age 28. Now he is proficient so he can teach 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.”

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,” he says.

Neither of Anico’s parents were educated. “My mother came from a smart family and she always encouraged our education,” he recounts. “She had vision in everyday life.”

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, then 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, then a managing director for Nexus Lexus, in Central Park. The young couple lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, then moved to Newark, Montclair, and ultimately West Windsor in 2008, following her work.

As a painter, Anico also does what he terms s “easy work” – still lifes with plants, fruit, books and newspapers to show the passage of time – but his environmental landscapes sold out at a recent showing.

“I would do this work regardless of whether it’s saleable. It’s what I believe in. After years of thinking about the land we’ve destroyed, I finally figured out how to put it in my art.”

The artist’s children, ages 8 and 10, serve 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 juxtaposed against factories and a water tower, or a young boy in a watch cap with a shipping port in the distance. We recognize 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, 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,” adds Anico. “I want the viewer to keep going and see what it is.”

José Anico’s paintings are exhibiting June 5-July 6, 2014 at Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, N.J. There will be an opening reception on Saturday, June 7, 5-8 p.m.

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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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