Way finding: Caroline Burton at the New Jersey State Museum

In Dialogue
Installation view of Caroline Burton: Way Finding at the New Jersey State Museum (September 23, 2023 – March 31, 2024). Photo courtesy of Sarah Vogelman

The New Jersey State Museum, part of the NJ Department of State, has served the public for nearly 130 years, showcasing diverse collections in Archaeology & Ethnography, Cultural History, Fine Art, and Natural History. Assistant curator Sarah Vogelman dedicates herself to the Fine Art collection, focusing on its care, expansion, and exhibition. With over 12,000 works, the collection emphasizes American art and notably highlights New Jersey artists, positioning their contributions within the broader American art history context. Through the New Jersey Artist Series, featuring exhibitions like Caroline Burton: Way Finding, Vogelman aims to spotlight New Jersey’s vibrant contemporary art scene and foster local artist collaboration. By curating this series and organizing exhibitions that offer wider or even global art historical perspectives, she strives to convey that New Jersey’s art is a vital part of a broader cultural dialogue. “I want our visitors to see that art from New Jersey transcends our state’s borders,” says Vogelman.

Tell us about your curatorial vision for Caroline Burton’s solo show.

From the beginning, I saw this exhibition as a collaboration with Caroline. I wanted to show a selection of her recent work so that visitors might glean something about how she works and how these works relate to physical architectural and natural spaces, as well as those that exist in the artist’s memory.

You mention in the exhibition essay that the titles of State I (of Being, NJSM), 2022, and State II (of Being, NJSM), 2023, may give a good indication of the process that drives Burton’s work. Can we take a closer look at these two paintings and get an idea of the process and how you interpret the idea behind them?

When I first met Caroline, she mentioned that she loved the concrete mid-century style architecture that houses our Museum and that she had been thinking about making a work inspired by our building. I loved this idea, especially in the context of an exhibition at our museum. Caroline’s canvases are often informed by specific architectural works that loom large in her mind, and I thought it would be special to have the paintings on view in the space that inspired them.

To help Caroline in her research for what would become State I and II, I sent her some archival images we had from the construction of the buildings in the 1960s. What Caroline ended up producing were two abstract works that captured some of the formal qualities and structure of the Museum building. State I seems to capture a particular section of the building’s exterior—the gray color and irregularities in the pattern are indicative of the stone and concrete construction materials. The triangular forms at the bottom of the composition represent the way the materials appear to contract into these attenuating support columns that you can see more clearly in in State II, which is a more “zoomed out” building profile.

Another thing I love about these works is that they are not just the result of a connection between me and Caroline or our Museum and Caroline. The works are also a collaboration between Caroline and an unknown maker who created the afghan shawls, blankets, and throws that create the oddly familiar patterns on the surface of the canvases. Caroline comes across discarded woven pieces like this in thrift shops, and collects them to be used as a printing matrix for her work. In the case of State I and II, I find that the knit pattern left behind by these handmade textiles brings a softness to the hard industrial materials they represent. There’s a tension there in the juxtaposition of the material and the image that I find fascinating.

Caroline Burton, State I (of Being, NJSM), 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 61 x 72.5 in., Courtesy of the artist
Caroline Burton, State II (of Being, NJSM), 2023, Acrylic on canvas, 72.5 x 54 in., Courtesy of the artist

You also say in the exhibition essay—Burton has created several paintings based on the architecture of the New Jersey State Museum building, adding another facet to the term “state.” Can you elaborate on that?

In Caroline’s titles for these works, the term “State” is intriguingly vague. To me, the title refers to at least three separate meanings that collide on the surface of the canvas. The first meaning is referring to the state of New Jersey and the fact that these works are based on the State Museum. The second meaning can be found in the other part of the parenthetical, “of Being,” referring to an existential state or condition. Finally, the third meaning refers to printmaking, which is central to Caroline’s process. Although done on canvas, one can categorize her work, or at least her mode of production, as printmaking. Rather than taking a brush directly to the canvas, Caroline charges abandoned crocheted and knitted textiles with paint and then presses them firmly onto the canvas surface, leaving behind the distinct patterns of the handmade afghans. The term “state” in printmaking is a stage through which a print progresses as the artist brings together the layers that will eventually become the final print. For me, these multiple meanings raise questions – Are State I and II alternate versions of the same work? Do they portend a future “final” work, as print states would? Whose “state of being” do these works capture? The building’s? The Museum’s? The artist’s? New Jersey’s?

Installation view of Caroline Burton: Way Finding at the New Jersey State Museum (September 23, 2023 – March 31, 2024). Photo courtesy of Sarah Vogelman

New Jersey Artist Series
Caroline Burton: Way Finding September 23, 2023 – March 31, 2024

About the artist: Caroline Burton is a process-driven artist, who draws on architectural forms, nature, and elements of chance for inspiration. Burton moves fluidly between painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, often combining techniques in a practice that invites unconventional materials. This New Jersey Artist series exhibition will feature some of the artist’s most recent work, from 2020 to the present, including a series based on the Brutalist architecture of the State Museum building. Since 1984, the New Jersey Artist Series at the New Jersey State Museum has highlighted artists living and working in the state and established the Museum’s crucial involvement with the world of contemporary art in New Jersey and beyond.

About the Curator: Sarah B. Vogelman has been the Assistant Curator of Fine Art at the New Jersey State Museum since 2022. Recent projects at NJSM include Caroline Burton: Way Finding (2023); I Cannot Sit Idly By: Sixty Years since Dr. King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (2023); New Jersey Arts Annual: Reemergence (2022-23). She is also responsible for acquisitions of works by artists such as Robert Smithson, Emma Amos, Willie Cole, and Cindy Sherman. Prior to NJSM, she was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art working as the Exhibition Assistant for Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (September 29, 2021 – February 13, 2022). The exhibition was named one of the best of 2021 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Hyperallergic. She holds an MA in History of Art from the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and a BA in Art History from Swarthmore College.