Friday, December 1st, 2006

Fetish Heads and Double Takes: Newark Between Us

Newark Between Us at the National Newark Building
October 22 – December 17, 2006
744 Broad Street – 6th floor
Newark, New Jersey
Newark Between Us: installation shot, showing (foreground) Daniel Harper Current 2006, mixed Media: wood, hardware cloth, aqua, and Daniel Rosenbaum Oasis 2006, mixed media, 125 x 135 inches
Newark Between Us: installation shot, showing (foreground) Daniel Harper Current 2006, mixed Media: wood, hardware cloth, aqua, and Daniel Rosenbaum Oasis 2006, mixed media, 125 x 135 inches

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Newark Between Us consists of 133 works by 97 artists, sprawling across 30,000 square feet of the vacant 6th floor of an elegant pre-war building.

Organized by Rupert Ravens, an artist and curator, the show combines paintings, sculptures and installations ranging widely in materials, size and intention. Ravens, wanting to reflect the “relationship, action or magic that takes place between people…artists…one generation and another…all with Newark between us…” has created an ambitious show. The original vision for Newark Between Us followed his visit to the 4th Berlin Biennale earlier this year. Moved by the “visual language” and variety he saw there, he said to himself “we can do this.”

And indeed he has. Among the 133 works, by mostly Newark and New York artists, the pieces range from the overtly political to the playful and frankly quirky to the raw and edgy. It’s a real mixture, and in the context of a rugged space complete with exposed ceiling beams and chipped pylons (recalling the SoHo galleries of 30 years ago) it’s a true visual adventure. The viewer wends his way among works and artists, often arranged by commonality of interest; sometimes there is a proximity of established to emerging artists showing the influence of the former on the latter, as when Leon Golub’s painting, “Bite Your Tongue,” depicting military atrocities, hangs near Stephen McKenzie’s print referring to gang warfare in Newark.

What is particularly compelling about this exhibit is how unpredictable it is in spite of this. As you wander through the rough-hewn gallery spaces, basic themes may emerge – but they are expressed in such a plethora of styles that the journey is startling at times. It never gets boring. There’s a constant change of tempo and approach.

Fetishistic heads, made of driftwood fragments into and onto which nails and rusting metal hardware pieces have been attached, are poised atop an elevated 48 x 96” table. The elevation lends an almost shrine-like aspect to the whole. Each head (typically 2 feet in height) stares down at the viewer with impudent assertion; Ujima Kuumba Mjied’s personages often derive their very features from natural erosions in the wood. The hand- (and nature-) crafted approach here contrasts refreshingly with the ambience given off by some of its slicker neighbors.

Stefanie Nagorka has created a site-specific installation that wonderfully exploits the space and its various light sources. Fish lines have been tautly extended in a parallel formation, which gradually fans out from a pillar across the floor to the side ledge of a window. The result is a dazzling, ever-changing play of light reflections as they prance across the plastic wires. These effects alter as you keep moving around the piece and as the natural light from the window varies. “Envy Green” seems both diaphanous and structural.

“Stephen I and II” by Grace Graupe-Pillard, both oil on canvas, are deceptive. Close-up they seem abstract. From further away the myriad shapes that comprise them coalesce into the image of the artist’s husband on a respirator. In fact, Graupe-Pillard deals with both the abstract and the figurative in her work. Images are computer manipulated so that their component parts are fractured into minute shapes which are then treated chromatically, with the result that the initial image becomes less apparent- often almost undiscernible. This duality in her work makes for its intriguing double-take quality; as either abstraction or representation they work as powerful statements.

As for double-takes, there are several  other opportunities for a viewer to engage in that enjoyable and sometimes disconcerting pastime here. Witness Daniel Rosenbaum’s “Oasis.” In an alcove about 125 x 135”, biomorphic clay forms seem to slither, sprawl, coil, undulate and reach across a sand-covered floor. Some even seem to be languidly meandering up the wall. From a distance, a viewer may think he is approaching some sort of nature display. But at closer proximity it becomes clear that none of these surreal beings (or parts thereof) really exist. Yet they gape, yawn and extend their claw-like appendages into space. Rosenbaum has evolved an utterly convincing universe of prickly, almost-breathing structures, transforming his space into a kind of fantastic “oasis.”

Chakaia Booker External Constraints 2006 rubber tires, wood, steel, 55 x 90 inches.  Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery
Chakaia Booker External Constraints 2006 rubber tires, wood, steel, 55 x 90 inches. Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery

Another alchemist, Chakaia Booker, works her usual magic with auto tires. In “External Constraints” the twisted, sliced sections of the formerly prosaic rubber forms have shed their utilitarian origins to emerge as parts of a grippingly potent assemblage. The piece is a restlessly lunging, coiled, tensely contained symbol of impending explosion. The viewer is never deceived as to the materials used- these are indeed tires. But so skillfully are they carved into and manipulated that the end results become powerful messengers of the human spirit at its most vehement.

On the other hand, some of the installations verge on the obvious. German Pitre’s tar-smeared black room with bed and a tarry American flag, leave little interpretive work for the viewer. Likewise, James A. Brown’s Hurricane Katrina Memorial, which takes the format of a miniature train set, is clear, direct and leaves no room for ambiguity.

Yoko Ono’s “Mend Piece” with its display of damaged as well as repaired crockery, invites the viewer to mend broken dishes with a special glue. OK. I’m sure this approach with its beguiling possibilities for audience participation and its accompanying symbolism has its admirers. But aesthetically, it may be of limited interest for others.

By contrast, Eileen Weitzman’s installation of three 5 foot figures, “The Outer Space Meeting of the Non-Aligned Empires,” is an eyeful. Bizarrely gesturing figures, constructed of a zany cacophony of printed fabrics, war photos, stuffed animals and vacuum cleaner tubes, seem to stride confidently about in their setting. They almost demand to be studied closely and seem comically unaware and even serenely smug in their strangeness,

With “Temple 2006,” Roy Crosse has totally transformed his alcove using white fabric hangings, placed in rows one behind the other, into a  plea for universal peace. The work is accompanied by a wall text that speaks of just the opposite and the fact that one of the suspended units is designed to suggest the shapes and format of the American flag, lend the piece an element of almost sorrowful irony.

Daniel Harper’s “Current,” a mixed media piece which deftly (and humorously) combines a cartoonishly animal body with a sail, seems like some species of giant toy conjured up in a dream and deposited in a Newark building. It has a “recently-landed” aspect.

In true site-specific installation spirit, Carl Hazlewood has painted directly onto the wall. Using geometric planes containing piercing green offset by sedate grays. Some of the planes are accentuated by strings and some of the colors used have been achieved with the use of the computer; an interesting collaboration between the artist and his technology assistant.

I could go on describing arresting, intriguing, sometimes perplexing but generally extremely effective works- “Newark Between Us” is a very ambitious venture – hopefully some relative of it will be presented in the near future.