February 29, 2008
Dan Bischoff, The Star-Ledger

The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is hosting the 22nd Annual International Juried Show through March 21, its yearly review of contemporary art from around the world, with submissions from Europe and China as well as the United States.

What strikes a visitor most strongly about this exhibition is the incredibly high level of skills young artists are displaying these days. Feeling and certainly gesture are alive and well, but it's labor and precision that earn the most points.

With more than 140 objects on display in Summit, that's, of course, a gross over-generalization, but the trends by now are unmistakable. Best in Show went to Paul Kaiser of Connecticut for "Jim as Salieri," a colossal graphite-and-oil full-face portrait on paper that is as photographic as an early Chuck Close, every wrinkle, crow's foot and blemish rendered with obsessive accuracy. Similarly, the painting went to John Salminen, half a husband-and-wife team based in Minnesota, for an extraordinarily detailed watercolor of two men sitting in a subway car, the walls, windows and strip electric lighting of the train reproduced with hallucinatory realism.

This year's show was judged by Carter E. Foster, the drawings curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and, like most folks involved with contemporary drawing, he may have some bias in favor of this sort of precision. or maybe it's just an inevitable spin-off of youthful graphomania, this urge to reproduce episodic narrative with accurate representation.

"As juror I certainly made no attempt in the initial choices to create any themes" for the exhibit, Foster writes in his juror's statement. "But after returning to view the works in person . . . I was struck that childhood, as an idea, symbol, mental state or straight up subject came through strongly in much of the best work."

Like "Plank," an India ink drawing by Texas artist Nathan Porterfield, showing a small boy standing on the end of a diving board wearing a Spiderman mask (winner of a merit award), or Michigan painter Candace Compton Pappas' "Basketball 2," an acrylic showing a boy bouncing a ball in profile against a brilliant yellow background (an honorable mention). Both pictures imply a child's story, without quite presenting either one in a definitive way.

Even the European submissions, like Netherlands artist Anthea Bush's merit award-winning "Icarus I," have tilt toward literalness. Her version of the boy who flew too close to the sun is a motorcycle helmet covered with hawk feathers.

Representation takes the fore in other merit winner like New York tapestry weaver Susan Maffei's "Another View - The Pompidou Near M/me Touitou," a cherry vista outside the Paris contemporary art museum, or fellow New Yorker Len Hua Lee's assortment of Porcelain bowls decorated with detailed drawings of insects, "Lovers II."

The winner of the annual Jurgen Thieck Memorial Award for Photography, New Yorker Jennifer Williams, has one of the few purely abstract arrangements in this show, a jumble of police barriers and disassembled bleacher gear that is cut out and arranged on a white surface, giving this still life a urban flotsam a very graphic presentation.

As is usual with this wonderful annual show, everyone who gets in is a winner - but for the rest of us, it's pretty much a draw.

Dan Bischoff may be reached at dbischoff@starledger.com.