Easy, Breazy Art from the Aljira Collection

Installation shot of works by Faith Ringgold, one of the artists included in "“Interstice & Emphasis: Artists from the Aljira Collection" (all photos by the author)

The Aljira contemporary art center in Newark, New Jersey, has a delightful summer show, titled Interstice & Emphasis: Artists from the Aljira Collection. The exhibition, now on view till September 24, features artwork acquired over the institution’s 27-year tenure.

The work on view is neither groundbreaking nor provocative, but it is appealing and downright charming at some moments. Though the show contains more than sixty artists, it does not feel crowded. The installation gives all of the art room to breathe, with the overall tenor of the show being low-key. As the song goes, it’s summertime and the living is easy.

Installation shot of works by Kevin Darmanie

The show, according to the exhibition statement, “considers what visual information may be revealed by emphasizing certain artists of interest and their work, taking them from the interstices of the collection for a focused look at what they are doing now.” To be frank, I have no idea what this sentence means. Because the show’s stated mission seems so muddled, it’s somewhat surprising that guest curator Carl E. Hazlewood has managed to assemble a visually cohesive exhibition from a random assortment of artwork.

What I do know is that the show highlights the work of six artists of varying degrees of experience: Kevin Darmanie, Janet Goldner, Grace Graupe Pillard, C. Duane Lee, Freddy Rodriguez and Fausto Sevila.

Most of the work is modest in scale and comprises works on paper, i.e. prints, drawings, and photographs, with an occasional painting or sculpture. No installations. No gadgets. No videos, at least none that I could see. On the whole, the work is as easy to digest as an ice cream cone — two scoops of double chocolate, with sprinkles.

Kevin Darmanie, "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," ink and water collage on paper, (2009)

Kevin Darmanie works in the vein of a graphic novelist. Like Dr. Lakra and Raymond Pettibon, he combines drawing and text. He is aided by his sense of wit, and a skillful hand. I was taken by the giant blond hairdo, painted directly onto the wall, which encloses five drawings. Kim Novak’s cascading tresses in the 1958 Hitchcock thriller Vertigo immediately came to mind.

Installation shot with paintings by Freddy Rodriguez (click to enlarge)

Freddy Rodriguez has two paintings in the show. His treatment of paint alternates between goopy and goopier. The paint is viscous, undulating and creamy. I would not be surprised if he smeared the paint on with one of those spatulas from the Cold Stone Creamery franchise.

Janet Goldner, "The Point of Water" (2009), steel wall installation

Janet Goldner is the one sculptor in the show. I had an immediate disdain for her work — and then it faded. As I lingered before the peculiar assortment of crude metal objects — ladder, book, and wheel of sorrow — the work grew on me. It had an odd charm.

Grace Graupe Pillard, "Exile," (2011)

Grace Graupe Pillard has three paintings in the show, and her “Exile” (2011) is the most striking. She reduces an elaborate scene of refugees into basic shapes, patterns and colors. I find it curious why the artist chooses to make a scene of misery, forced deportation and desperation visually appealing.

Fausto Sevila, "Seven Times Seven," (2010)

Of the six artists highlighted in the show, Fausto Sevila and C. Duane Lee are the weakest. Sevila’s painting, “Seven Times Seven” (2010) is a mishmash of aerosol paint, acrylic and oil. He cuts himself off at the knees, using dirty paint and muddled turpentine. I believe he would benefit from more preparedness in the studio — larger palette, more brushes and clean painting medium.

Installation view with works by C. Duane Lee

C. Duane Lee takes portraits of urban youngsters in Montgomery, Alabama. Lee’s work suffers from an unfortunate display. His photographs have been installed on a freestanding wall in the middle of the gallery, a veritable no man’s land. The timid presentation seems random, willy-nilly. I believe his installation would have been helped if he included at least a hundred more photographs, and really took claim of the wall space with the same brash cockiness of his subjects.

Tucked away works in the gallery space

Among the featured artwork, a few gems lie, tucked away. Highlights include “In The Land of Ooh-Bla-Di, Homage to Mary” by Miriam Shapiro, “Somebody Stole My Broken Heart” by Faith Ringgold, “Portrait of a Young Woman” by Mazilu, a couple of photographs by Eikoh Hosoe and “Noah’s Ark” by Harold Finster.

What did I learn about the collection?

Museum labels are few and far between. They are reserved for the artists of note. A checklist is provided to help identify work. Apart from artist’s name, medium and date of creation, the checklist offers little context about the work, from its origins to its original purpose. Is this a big deal? I’d say no. For the most part, the work is visually appealing and held my interest.

I would be interested in how Aljira accumulated the works in the collection. Did the artist gift the work to the institution? Did some generous benefactor decide to donate his or her collection? Was the print by Miriam Shapiro found on the side of the street?

Interstice & Emphasis: Artists from the Aljira Collection will be on view at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art (591 Broad Street, Newark, New Jersey) until September 24.

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