Newark Open Doors – Highlights and Shining Moments
By Eric Valosin
The streets of Newark, NJ were paved with gold this past weekend. In fact, literally in some cases. The city was aglimmer with events for Newark Arts Council Open Doors, its annual knock-‘em-down, drag-‘em-out, blowout art walk. It seemed fitting that the resplendence of the city’s ever-expanding revitalization efforts should be reflected in much of the art itself.
The first stop on my whirlwind tour was the Newark Museum’s Festival of Color And Light. Gabriel Dawe’s breathtaking string installations would have been enough, generating atmospheric illusions that envelope your senses, and moire patterns that seem to reach out and tickle your visual cortex (to be tickled more, see our introduction to the exhibition), but the museum did not stop there. Programmed to the hilt, the atrium was flooded with kids exploring color theory through games and activities. Adults were just as engaged with tours, talks, workshops, films, and performances. Upstairs in the north wing, the Chromatic: Minimalism and Color Field Experiments exhibition grounded the festival in a history of the most profound, fundamentally paradigm shifting ways of getting lost in shiny objects.
A few blocks down Washington, a fittingly Flavinesque light over a revolving, technicolor vinyl record by Gilbert Hsiao continued the minimalist train of thought in Gallery Aferro’s Molting. Hsiao’s thoughtful sonic-optical exploration of perception exemplified one of the many curatorial strategies employed to dissect the psyche’s relationship to free will and the societal construction of self. The show was in fact far stronger than the rather opaque curatorial statement led me to expect. Overall I was impressed by the roster of artists and the strength of the individual works gathered by fledgling curators Kayla Carucci, Alex Scott Cummings, and Jacob Mandel. Tomo Mori’s gorgeous collage-paintings disassembled the self into cellular, pixilated components, while Andrea Garcia Vasquez reassembled it into a nearly spectral symbiosis of fibrous interdependence. Meanwhile, the consistently compelling work of Ken Weathersby restructured the self entirely, playfully pitting two dimensions against three, image against support.
Also stitching together a sense of self from disparate parts was Juno Zago’s An Ode to When I Used To When I Used To Be Skinny. In a nod to the Japanese art of Kintsugi – mending cracked pottery using a compound of powered gold to reclaim the brokenness as part of the aesthetic – the reclaimed clothing scraps conjured a search for identity amid a history of metropolitan cultural noise that reflects Newark’s ongoing effort to turn over a new leaf. Particularly, in this case, a gold one.
With no less than two explicit references to Kintsugi in Aferro alone, and many more subtle references, gold leaf was certainly the medium du jour. The golden theme began most noticeably in Jessica Ellis’s The Memorial of the Monthly Genocide, and was picked up by an equally critical (and equally gilded) cultural account of womanhood in Alexandra Desipris’s Istanbul was Constantinople/Constantinople was Istanbul. Immediately to its left, Kelli McGuire’s untitled collage presaged the Activate Market Street storefront installations with a trail of gold leaf cutting across the otherwise undisturbed landscape.
Market Street proper was replete with strong installations, but one in particular took the gold medal (pun intended, if you haven’t caught on by now). Donna Conklin King’s reconfiguration of her prior public installation Restore took on a new life as it moved from the wooded South Mountain Reservation to an urban storefront. Accompanied by a historical map of Newark and a large mirror, the plaster tree stump and the gold leaf oozing forth, filling the cracks in the floor and spilling down into the cracks of the sidewalk outside seemed the perfect culmination of Open Doors’s Kintsugi revitalization efforts.
Of course it was not all gold leaf and pretty lights. Every bright light, after all, casts a deep shadow. The darker underbelly of identity formation, social hierarchy and urban power dynamics was represented in full force at The Gateway Center’s (Em)Power Dynamics artist talk, Index Art Center’s Forum in Form, and Gallery 85’s Big Paper (If your eyes haven’t yet adjusted to the light, you can take shelter in our review of these latter two exhibitions, coming soon).
This duality was nowhere more apparent than in the initially odd pairing of Michael Paul Britto and Tom Nussbaum at Aljirah. Where Britto observes the path of urban development and American culture with a certain jaded cynicism, Nussbaum’s whimsical forms see as through the eyes of a child.
His sculptures and wall pieces bring together urban planning and architecture, with a keen eye fixed on art history, as in East Orange Boogie Woogie and Woman III. The urban sprawl that influences his work is just as much a result of technological sprawl, which finds its way into his steel and epoxy forms reminiscent of circuit boards and atomic structures.
All of this is deftly funneled through a visual vocabulary nostalgic for (or perhaps still living in) a simpler time, one of preschool playthings and elementary school pranks. Smoke Bomb is part mushroom cloud turned sodium nitrate popper, part atomic diagram turned Anatex Rollercoaster Bead Maze. Nussbaum recounts finding his father’s science textbooks as a kid in the sixties and poring over them, unaware of their meaning, but entranced by the diagrams and renderings. And in keeping with the theme begun at the Newark Museum, his playful musings support an exploration of color that would make Mondrian proud.
It’s a very good problem to have that I was not able to see even half of the events I wanted to during Open Doors. I was remised to have to choose between studio visits, artist talks, and openings. But this is indicative of a thriving and burgeoning art scene that gets better and better with every Open Doors festival.
In the wake of transitioning leadership and some new procedural experiments at the Newark Arts Council, there were a few bumps to iron out. The overarching flow and logistics of the weekend could perhaps have been organized and communicated better, both between institutions and with the public, but I suspect these are merely growing pains. Civic buy-in seemed ambivalent, with Rutgers University graciously providing shuttle services but nearly all restaurants closed for business. Online advertising was plentiful, but physical markers were nearly nonexistent as I walked from venue to venue. I got the feeling the city of Newark and the art world of Newark were not quite on the same page. Perhaps with continued success in years to come, the city will further realize art’s power to transform Newark into what it dreams to be – what it got to become for one knock ‘em down drag ‘em out, blowout of a weekend – the gleaming city on a hill and beacon of culture in the Tri-State area.