Every now and then, it’s good to be reminded that New Jersey, whose cultural identity is often overshadowed by New York’s, plays an important role in American arts. From the landfills and the oil refineries to the Jersey Shore and the Sourland Mountains, the Garden State is fertile ground for art makers.
Nearly 50,000 professional artists live in New Jersey, and thousands more exercise creative expression, whether as performers or visual artists. Artists are the creative capital of our communities, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts promotes, encourages and assists them to achieve their highest ambitions, enabling public understanding and appreciation because artists really do make New Jersey a better place.
The New Jersey Arts Annual Special Edition is on view at the New Jersey State Museum, highlighting the works of artists chosen for their excellence in drawing, photography, sculpture, painting, ceramics, glass, metal, wood and mixed media.The exhibition celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. In its half century, more than 1,300 artists, craftspeople or folk arts apprentices have received from or participated in exhibitions sponsored by the Arts Council.
Walking through the first-floor gallery, a viewer feels a sense of pride in our state and its commitment to the arts, from the industrial landscapes of Tim Daly, Robert Birmelin and Valeri Larko (amber skies over ribbons of highway, mountains of rusted refuse, towers of oil refineries) to Mel Leipzig’s first two panels of what will eventually be a five-panel painting.
Leipzig takes us into the offices of the State Arts Council (located on State Street just next door to the Museum) in “Homage to the Arts of New Jersey” (2017). The painting reminds us that our state has been home to the likes of Paul Robeson, Walt Whitman, Meryl Streep, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Amiri Baraka and Pablo Medina. Among the papers on the desks are a program for Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, and other documents bearing the names of the state’s museums: Newark, Jersey City, Ellarslie, Montclair, Morris, Noyes, Aljira, Princeton University Art Museum, and of course the State Museum. We see works on the walls of these offices by New Jersey artists Ben Shahn, Winslow Homer (he summered on the Jersey Shore) and Jacob Lawrence (born in Atlantic City). At the corner of one desk is a reproduction of Leipzig’s own painting of artist Bernarda Bryson Shahn.
“The arts are not a frill,” said U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (1936-1996), according to the exhibition pane—in 1976 Jordan was the first black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. “What is there that can transcend deep difference and stubborn divisions? The arts. They have a wonderful universality. Art has the potential to unify. It can speak in many languages without a translator. The arts do not discriminate. The arts can lift us up.”
Indeed this is a star-studded affair. “There’s Something about New Jersey,” a video produced by the Arts Council, includes some of the state’s biggest names: Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Junot Diaz, Robert Pinsky. Former Gov. Tom Kean makes the case that it’s vital to have public funding for the arts, emphasizing that money spent on the arts is not spending but investing: “With the arts you get more back… the state has a responsibility for the arts.”
Many of the works are in the museum’s collection, thanks to the State Arts Council. “Everyone knows George Segal’s sculpture, but he was also a printmaker,” says Curator and New Jersey State Museum Director Margaret O’Reilly of the inclusion of an aquatint, “Girl in Bluejeans: Back View.”
George Segal is also the subject of a 1987 photograph by Donald Lokuta. The sculptor is seated in the former Townhouse Restaurant in Trenton, now a PNC Bank. Behind Segal is a mural painted on the wall, part of the capital city’s forgotten history. “George and Donald were good friends and would go out and take pictures together,” recounts O’Reilly.
New Jersey artists’ influences range from historical to international and internal. Franc Palala’s “Leaning Tower of Suitcases” is made from vintage valises with illuminated images of leaning towers at tourist sites. Winifred M. McNeill’s “Intimation of Memory” has tiny glazed porcelain heads looking up, seemingly lost.
Wendell White’s photograph, “Slave Collar,” from the Alexander Library Special Collections, is, against the stark black background, a haunting reminder of our nation’s history.
The exhibition includes a video, “Color Yourself Inspired” (2016) by Andrew Demirjian, which generates infinite color combinations defined poetically: “Yellow haze cedar grove,” “gentle gray St. Patty’s Day Mayonnaise,” “George Caponata on my mind,” “luscious carbon copy,” “rushing river café au lait.”
Many of the works will bring forth a déjà vu, of the artist if not the work itself, for regular visitors to the museum: Shoshanna Weinberger’s “Mend Thine Ev’ry Flaw: The American Pin-ups,” last seen in 2014’s America exhibit, an American “flag” with 50 pinups of a figure with a prominent derriere, big Afro, and lips in either red or pink–each pinup represents a state; Elaine Lorenz’s “Beyond,” suggestive of flesh and seed pods, exhibited in the ’90s; and works by Dahlia Elsayed and Toshiko Takaezu.
With works in colored pencil, recycled fabric, handmade abaca, paper, Xerox transfer, fresco on paper and glass beads, “All of these artists have a love of material,” says O’Reilly.
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.