Exhibit takes root at South Orange
Thursday, May 11, 2006
BY DAN BISCHOFF
THERE'S A distress signal in South Orange.
Blossoming on the slope of Flood's Hill in Meadowland Park
is the silhouette of a crop-circle-sized AK-47, picked out in white artificial
roses on the green spring grass.
The big outline of an assault rifle is a work of art by New
York artist Carlo Vialu, who is referring to Vice President Dick
Cheney's assertion before the invasion of Iraq that American troops would be
greeted with flowers.
Vialu and 15 other regional artists, six of them based in New
Jersey, are part of "Headlines," an exhibition of art
about current events at the Pierro Gallery in South Orange.
Three years after George Bush's statement of "mission accomplished,"
this is the first full-throated American anti-war art exhibition in the New York area -- at
least in a permanent gallery setting.
"Headlines" is almost all about the war in Iraq, from Lynn
Sullivan's crude papier-mâché figures made out of New York Times pages and
posed like selected war photos to Karina Aguilera Skvirsky's video of people
dressed like Middle Easterners jerkily approaching the camera along a wooded
street, asking us to wonder, like a reservist in Iraq, "Which one do I
"We've all been trying to lead our normal lives since 9/11," says
Pierro director Judy Wukitsch. "And on through the war, the natural
disasters, all the disasters, trying not to let it weigh us down so we cannot
function. But you can't ignore trauma and depression forever. Artists have been
doing this work all along, they just didn't have a place to show it. And I
think hosting this show now in South Orange is
almost cathartic for all of us."
Amy Wilson's long, narrow watercolor series here, "A Glimpse of What
Life in a Free Country Could Be Like," is already somewhat famous. The
series tells a complex story in densely scripted thought balloons emanating
from tiny figures, some of them skeletal, about the shifting rationales for war
and the horrific consequences. (Wilson is also
showing two anti-war watercolors in "Among the Trees," a show at the New Jersey Center
for Visual Arts in Summit
through June 4.)
The New York Daily News made one tiny, 4- by 5-inch section of
"Glimpse" known earlier this year by blowing it up and putting it on
the paper's cover: a painting of a hooded figure with electrical wires attached
to his hands, based on the famous torture photo from Abu Ghraib prison, only in
Wilson's version the wires loop down below the figure to spell out
"LIBERTY." The ruckus kicked up by the tabloid ultimately got the Drawing Center,
a widely respected SoHo nonprofit where Wilson's
drawings were on display, kicked out of the cultural planning for the new
development at Ground Zero.
That "Headlines" comes to a relatively modest municipally
supported art gallery in an inner-ring New Jersey suburb, before anything
similar has opened anywhere else in the region, must say something about
today's art world -- probably about its intense love affair with wealth, and
the timidity of institutions that have dreams of billion-dollar facility
It says something about South Orange, too.
Guest curator Mary Birmingham of Montclair drew this show together in a
relatively short time (though there is a full-color catalog) and did a
remarkable job, cobbling together a collection of committed art works that
nonetheless seem to touch on a broad range of contemporary currents in terms of
media and methods. She found that many artists were making anti-war pieces all
along, so many that she had to arbitrarily cut off the stream of work.
Painter Joy Garnett's oils on canvas
mine a painterly interest in form while conveying a deeply threatening sense of
global dread (check out "Evac," from her "Strange
Weather" series). Jersey City
artist Brendan Carroll sets up toy soldiers and snaps Polaroids that look like
grainy field shots with absurdist typewritten captions like "Somebody
kicked the baby buffalo. It was still alive, though just barely, just in the
collagist Peter Jacobs is showing the collage journals he's been keeping since
the war began -- he makes at least one a day -- each image reproduced on the
page of a spiral sketchbook. Jonathan Allen paints blue skies and blowing
leaves in acrylics with faint outlines of an M1-A1 Abrams tank limned in over
them. Curt Ikens of Cranford, who does "unauthorized collaborations"
with the work of other artists (he is also currently showing a sculptural
assemblage at the Jersey City
Museum) has the largest
installation: two enormous, quite comfortable sofa chairs made entirely from
shredded and baled copies of The Star-Ledger.
A checklist of objects in the show is no substitute for finding your way to
the second-floor galleries in the Baird
Center, which is in Meadowland Park.
No doubt "Headlines" will raise some controversy -- though perhaps
less than it might have before polled approval rates for the war began
The chief weapon of these artists is a sassy irony. Take Indiana artist Cheryl Yun's very witty set
of women's clothing, hung on a garment rack in a gallery back room. Yun takes
photos of war subjects, prints them on tissue, cuts the paper into dress
patterns, and then sews them into nighties or beachwear to mesh with President
Bush's post 9/11 injunction to Americans to go shopping.
That's how you get pieces titled "Flyaway Babydoll with Suicide
Hipsters: 'U.S. Troops Get a Warm Thank You from President Bush, April 13, 2005.'''