Visual Arts Center of New Jersey – Global Angst

“Containment”, partial Installation view at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, (right wall: Erin Diebboll,  center front: Linda Ganjian,  left: david Packer), photo by Etienne Frossard
The  group of international artists throughout the two exhibitions at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey – “Containment” and “Oh what a world! What a world!” are altogether reflecting on social, political, and cultural changes in recent history.  “Oh what a world! What a world!”,  located in the Main Gallery, addresses a wide array of issues related to immigration, gender equality, civil rights, policing, protest, and the state of our Democracy. “Containment”, at the Eisenberg and Strolling Gallery, addresses specifically  hot trade issues –  how the use of shipping containers affects our ability to trade and ship goods globally, coming to the forefront with Trump’s attempts to remove the country from existing trade deals. Both shows were curated by  Mary Birmingham. The following preview on the two shows is largely based on text provided by the NJ Visual Arts Center.

June 1 – September 9, 2018
Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg Gallery and
Marité & Joe Robinson Strolling Gallery I
Linda Ganjian, Leslie Kerby, David Packer, Erin
Diebboll. Gabby Miller

Leslie Kerby, The “Containment” collages each have titles such as “Containment US U4260”, courtesy of the artist

This exhibition in Summit takes place fewer than fifteen miles
from where the first commercially successful container ship—the SS
Ideal-X—was launched in 1956, carrying 58 cargo-laden tractor
trailer bodies from Port Newark, NJ to Houston, TX.

Shipping containers, large sealed boxes of standard size, have been used
to transport goods since the early 20th century, but only since the 1960s they assumed a central role  in ocean shipping and consequently one of the most significant factors in the globalization of trade. Because of their standardized sizes, containers can be stacked and moved efficiently. Enormous oceangoing vessels carry thousands of these cargo-filled containers arranged in rows on and below their decks,  providing consumers with ready access to goods from all parts of the world.  The five artists in this show reflect in their art on different aspects of this global phenomenon.

David Packer’s ceramic container references the essential link between trains and cargo ships. Linda Ganjian’s sculptural installation, laid out like a patterned carpet, envisions a container ship accident at sea. Erin Diebboll and Gabby Miller have been both artists-in-residence on container ships, resulting in different approaches- in her elaborate drawings, Diebboll imagines the hidden contents of shipping containers, whereas in her series of paintings Miller used the ship’s engine oil as a medium.

Leslie Kerby’s site-specific installation in the adjacent Robinson Strolling
Gallery explores the movement of shipping containers through sculpture,
mixed media works on paper, and a video animation which is a part of her collaborative project with video designer Lianne Arnold and sound designer Elisheba Ittoop.  In her video animation Kerby observes that today containers  are increasingly re-purposed as shelters and used in new community and market applications—from “tent cities” to designer housing; food and clothing markets as well as mobile hydroponic farms. For her works on paper she derives the titles from the international code/numbering system used to identify each container as well as the country of origin. 

Leslie Kerby, “The World Contained”, installation view, courtesy of the artist

“Uncontained Consumption,” Linda Ganjian‘s “table-top” installation draws upon  photographs of container ship accidents, re-imagining these catastrophes as “beautiful but horrific landscape, a pretty pollution,” as she puts it. Ganjian’s process began by collecting plastic packaging, casting these refuse fragments into miniature plaster molds, then arranging the pieces into a cohesive landscape surrounded by models of sinking container ships and computer networks.

Linda Ganjian, Detail of “Uncontained Consumption”, 2017, Mixed media, 72 x 42 x 9 in., courtesy of the artist
Oh, what a world! What a world!
June 1 – September 9, 2018
The Main Gallery and Stairwell
Olive Ayhens,  Zoë Buckman, Mary Jean Canziani, David Antonio Cruz, Dahlia Elsayed, Goldschmied & Chiari, Enrico Gomez, Johannah Herr, Morgan O’Hara, Felekşan Onar,  Fernando Orellana, Kern Samuel, Renée Stout, Julie Wolfe
Titled after the last words spoken by the Wicked Witch of the West as she melts away in the film “The Wizard of Oz. ” Birmingham says in the show PR that the melting witch is an apt metaphor for the loss of control many Americans have sensed following the contentious 2016 presidential election. The political and cultural climate of increase polarization, anxiety about the future of the country and the world at large prompt artists with diverse sensibilities and wide range of  geographic origins to respond to this global angst.
Olive Ayhens’ paintings transform  environments into quirky landscapes. Equipped with imagination that borders on the Surreal she creates with lush and vivid paint rich surfaces with elaborate details and  subtle ecological underscores. Ayhens, who is originally from California and a NYC resident, began painting “Polluted Swamp” in 2016, after she visited Florida and encountered her first swamp. ” I was moved by the vigorous vitality of the living system, even as careless and indifferent people sink their cars into these valuable ecosystems.” Her vibrant colors resonate with an immediate sense of  joie de vivre but the more time you spend with her paintings, the  sense of harmonious joy gets disrupted by the darkness that lurks under the surface.
Olive Ayhens, “Polluted Swamp”, 2016–18, Oil on canvas courtesy of the artist

Mary Jean Canziani re-purposes the linen surface of vintage book covers as canvas. By manipulating the books with paint as an act of devaluation or even desecration of our nostalgic shared link to the past, Canziani aims to prompt our sense of loss, or perhaps what we are about to lose. She says that her ideas derive from the books’ titles, which enable her to  engage with social and environmental commentary by using word play and dark humor.

Mary Jean Canziani, “Basic Anxiety–A New Psychobiological Concept”, 2017, Acrylic on repurposed book, courtesy of the artist

The work of New York-based multidisciplinary artist David Antonio Cruz addresses the intersections of gender-queerness, race, and society. The two  paintings displayed here are from a series of portraits that refers specifically to violence done to the transgender community. Cruz’s portraits pay homage to the memory of trans women of color that were among the victims from 2017 to 2018, honoring the humanity of each victim.

In his landscape  series, “American Sunsets,” Enrico Gomez the NYC / NJ based  painter and curator uses divided images not only to examine his sense of failed American ideology but also to recommit to his own ideals, of – “justice, representation, visibility, power, and equality.” The base image for each painting is a sunset taking place in an area or state with personal or political meaning for the artist. A second image is based on flags of Russian states – visually spliced and interwoven with the first. This hybrid imagery is in response to the spate of anti-LGBT violence reported in 2017 across Russia, as well as an increased rhetoric-fueled crimes against LGBT Americans. “I am calling this series “American Sunsets” as I feel that I am experiencing the sun setting on a particular set of ideals  I was brought up with,” says Gomez.

Enrico Gomez, “Red State, Liberty Sunset”, 2017, Acrylic and mixed media on paper, 7 x 7 inches (12 x 12 inches framed)

In line with her known politically charged work, the UK born artist Zoë Buckman‘s exhibits a suspended sculpture which refers to female empowerment in form of a glowing white neon outline of an abstracted uterus with boxing gloves in place of ovaries. The artist says in the PR, “Whether it speaks to reproductive rights or advocacy around domestic violence, or women’s health awareness, my goal is to give agency to these women whilst also transcending gender in the fight for women’s rights.”

Language is central to the work of Dahlia Elsayed, both as a formal element and subject matter. For more than a decade she has combined text and imagery to create visually narrative paintings that document memories and connect internal and external experiences of place. Recently, she began exploring the genre of graphic memoir as a way to recount her relationship to the language of her childhood, Western Armenian, and her teacher Sosy, a Syrian-Armenian refugee who is helping her via Skype lessons.

The drawings displayed here came about after Elsayed started  the language lessons. She was taking notes for which she made little drawings, then conceived them as a longer series or possibly a book. “It has become a way for us to connect on much deeper issues of displacement and loss, through the guise or framework of language lessons,” the artist says. Her relationship with the teacher, who initially was a stranger, has developed into a deep friendship—her story of being displaced mirroring the story of Elsayed’s own  grandmother and mother.

Moved by the plight of Syrian refugees crowding her home city of Istanbul, Turkey, glass artist Felekşan Onar created  during a residency at Berlin a series of mold-blown glass swallows with closed wings. Like birds that have landed but cannot move or fly, these refugees remain grounded.  “The steps of the beautiful old buildings of Pera, where my studio is in Istanbul, are the new nests for the Syrian refugees,” she explains. Turkey is hosting more than half of the Syrian refugees of the civil war, totaling up to 3.5 million, from which almost half a million are in Istanbul. Onar aims to place her beautifully crafted yet fragile birds around public spaces in Western Europe to increase awareness. The fourteen glass birds on view here are part of a larger “flock”, totalling 99.

“Oh, What a World What a World! “, partial installation view at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (left to right: Dahlia Elsayed, Goldschmied & Chiari, Fernando Orellana, Zoë Buckman), photo by Etienne Frossard

In their recent series “Untitled Views,” the Milan-based artist duo Goldschmied & Chiari, worked with smoke bombs in their studio to create photographs of colored smoke printed between transparent and mirrored glass. The ephemeral nature of smoke as a material signifies urgency and protest. The resulting visually arresting works disintegrate the borders between  image, surface, and place, while recreating a sense of their original experience in the studio, where the interior space  temporarily transformed into a swarm of colorful clouds. As viewers gaze at their reflection through this colored haze,  the notion of “smoke and mirrors” readily comes to mind—an illusion that obscures reality.

Goldschmied & Chiari, “Untitled View”, 2017
Digital prints on glass and glass mirrors,
courtesy of the artists and Kristen Lorello, NY

Johannah Herr  is interested in visual patterning and other optical devices that  dazzle and at the same time unsettle the viewer.  Her series “Patenting Distraction” is based on US patent diagrams for Directed-Energy Weapons, which use beams of highly focused energy waves  to control crowds or defy enemies. Herr sees this visual and sonic overload as a metaphor for  power structures that distract citizens into complacency. She says that while the ‘Figure’ in each diagram corresponds to actual US government policy enacted in the past year, the labeling of diagram components absurdly corresponds to titles of click-bait— ranging from celebrity gossip to pseudo-science remedies. Drawn entirely in holographic and metallic sign vinyl, with a dazzling optically patterned backdrop, these diagrammatic drawings  obscure more than illuminate, echoing the spectacular power play of governments and corporations.

Morgan O’Hara  believes that copying a document by hand can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. On Inauguration Day in January 2017,  she went to the New York Public Library and began copying the US Constitution by hand. Since then she has continued this practice at libraries and other venues, inviting members of the public to join in this activity. “The hand writer may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement,” she says.
Fernando Orellana  has worked for over twenty years with robots to make
artwork. As a machine designer, a technologist, and a user, Orellana has blurred the line between himself and machines in his creative process. The robots in “Voice” are designed to move protest signs up and down, mimicking human protesters.  “Unlike their human counterparts, these robot activists will never grow weary or become distracted from their cause. They will loudly and stoically carry on their protest, until power is removed from them or their mechanical parts fail”.
Fernando Orellana, “Voice”, 2017, Wood, metal, electronics, motor, cardboard, and ink, courtesy of the artist
Kern Samuel, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, is strongly influenced by his Caribbean heritage, and especially his mother, who had a sewing workshop at home. In his painting, collage, and sculpture, Samuel uses found materials, mostly fabric from which he cuts and combines uniform geometric shapes to form a surface for his imagery. His contour lines depict figures engaged in recognized gestures like hugging, praying, bathing, and sitting. He also incorporates into his narratives anecdotal text from his journals.  “The Hug,” a gesture of empathy, is depicted by a simple line work, misaligned by the sewing process.
Kern Samuel, “The Hug”, 2017, Acrylic on pieced fabric, courtesy of the artist

The Pittsburgh born artist Renée Stout  began to explore the roots of her African American heritage through multi-media work, exploring the belief systems of African peoples and their descendants. She aims to create art that encourage self-examination, empowerment, and healing. She made “Storefront Church Georgia Avenue,” in 2015 after the Charleston church shooting. While looking  at Internet images of the demonstrations that ensued, she spotted a black woman holding up a sign that said, ‘White Jesus isn’t Coming,’  and included the poignant text across the bottom of the painting.

In her installation Julie Wolfe utilizes a series of found book pages as a foundation for screen prints, drawings, inkjet images, ink, gouache, and typewriter entries. She embellished these pages with sculptural elements made of found materials, fabricated tools made with sterling silver and other alloys, and water samples taken from local and international waterways.
“This series of pages and sculpture enables moments of envisioning  our aspiration to find a better world but also suggests how we are haunted by our failures,” she says.

“Oh, What a World What a World! “, partial installation view at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (left: Renée Stout, middle: Morgan O’Hara), photo by Etienne Frossard
“Oh, What a World What a World! “, partial installation view at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (left: Felekşan Onar, right: Johannah Herr), photo by Etienne Frossard

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