In fall 2021, 284 artists submitted 850 individual works of art to be considered for possible inclusion in the 2022 Newport Biennale Featured Artists exhibition at the Newport Art Museum.
The assembled works were examined by guest juror Dr. Kimberli Gant, who at the time was the McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. She has since become Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Dr. Gant accepted 69 artists for the exhibition and the resulting exhibition is a dazzling mix of painting, sculpture and a variety of other media that speak to each other, engaged in conversation about aesthetics and, most often, on socio-political concerns.
“Road Crew,” an oil painting by Mark Fernandez, depicts two men in hard hats and yellow safety gear working in a hole in the road, while another stands guard against traffic. An orange and white cone takes center stage in the foreground.
It is an ordinary drudgery scene as one might see on any given day, but the composition and scale of the work resonates with a classical Renaissance sensibility. In Fernandez’s vision, workers take on a mythical presence. This trinity of blue-collar men emerges as larger-than-life everyday heroes.
Julie Angela Theresa exhibits ‘Slide’, an oil and acrylic painting, which is, for the most part, a seemingly non-objective smudge of grey, ecru and pale blue. However, in the lower left corner – taking up a mere fraction of the picture plane – there is an image of a toddler, climbing the steps of a small plastic slide. The child stares at all non-things above and around as if trying to figure it out. It speaks of hope, possibility and aspiration, not yet thwarted.
There are a number of works in the Biennale that speak to the strength and vulnerability of women in a way that is, depending on each artist’s inclinations, bold or subtle or somewhere in between.
Self-taught artist from Rhode Island Rebecca Boxx offers a large double portrait “Brittany and Aliya”. The painting is reminiscent of much of Alice Neel’s work. His portraits often depicted a most vulnerable person. For example, see Neel’s “Andy Warhol,” 1970, in which the pop art icon sits shirtless and scarred shortly after an assassination attempt.
Boxx’s subjects are two middle-aged women, seated side by side and holding hands. Their drooping breasts are bare, their forearms are tattooed. Brittany and Aliya can be lovers, sisters, close friends, or none of these. But while their apparent intimacy suggests vulnerability, note that intimacy itself can be a strength.
“Let’s go! by Ana Hitchcock is a three-dimensional mural containing five separate elements (a woman’s head, torso, two arms, and a pair of connected legs) that merge into a striking assemblage. Painted a brilliant crimson, she seems to punch through the wall like a Marvel Comics superhero or a vengeful ghost. The title of the piece – with its angry exclamation mark – and the sword fists show that she is ready to scold.
“Fight Like a Girl,” by Natalie Featherston, is a tondo of a pair of blood-red boxing gloves hanging from a nail, on top of a pile of lacy pink clothes, possibly pajamas. He flips an old-school playground taunt on his head.
There is so much more to enjoy at the Biennale. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with the show (thanks to Dr. Gant and the excellent museum staff). Some of those worth noting include Kathy Hodge’s ‘The Fox’, Katie Dye’s ‘Stretch’ and Derrick A. TePaske’s ‘Sex Pot XIII: Abyss’.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t go a bit more in-depth regarding Sonja Czekalski’s “Wedding Dress (27,648 Women A Day)”.
Hanging from the ceiling is a reimagined wedding dress. It is life size and sleeveless. It’s not blank white. It appears soiled, a little dirty, yellowed or browned. He is in a state of imaginary unraveling.
The “fabric” of the dress is made up of 276 wire “drawings” of individual women. Each figure represents 100 women and each figure is dipped in linen paper pulp, referencing traditional household craftsmanship.
27,648 is the number of reports of domestic violence made by women against their husbands or other domestic partners…every day. Every day.
Disappointing note to finish. Think of it as a public service announcement.
The 2022 Newport Biennale Featured Artists exhibition is on view at the Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI through May 29.