What America looks like through the eyes of these artists

I’ve come to see America.

On view through April 5, 2015 at the New Jersey State Museum, America: Through Artists’ Eyes includes a sampling of some of the most important artists working in the state today. 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, but soon they all came around.

Calling attention upon entering the gallery is “1985” by Will “Kasso” Condry. From a distance I thought I was looking at an aerial vew 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 this 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 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 broken shards of glass.

We’ve all come to look for America.

Artist Thomas Francisco 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 shapes of stars and stripes. It’s the American flag devoid of color, without any semblance of order. America gone awry.

Next to Francisco’s “flag” is a jolt of color by graffiti writer Leon Rainbow in “Land of the Free” – the bold graffiti-style letters are 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.”

Indian-born artist Ela Shah combines Indian goddesses with American pop culture icons whom she considers part of a sort of contemporary mythology. For this show she has created a biographical found object piece with a video of scenes from 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 Hindu temple doors where 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 is the designer responsible for universal symbols — those little black figures on the restroom door, one with a skirt and one with trousers, or others such as a black slash through an image of a prohibited activity. Here Cook has a video, “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 Missouri. He laid railroad tracks and built freight cars and ultimately achieved success as a linens salesman.

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 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, from which the song “America the Beautiful” came. 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

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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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