Newport Art Museum Biennial 2022 Featured Artist Exhibition on view now

Don Wilkinson
 |  Special to The Herald News

In the fall of 2021, 284 artists submitted 850 individual works of art to be reviewed for possible inclusion in The Newport Biennial 2022 Featured Artist Exhibition at the Newport Art Museum. 

The assembled works were reviewed by guest juror Dr. Kimberli Gant, who at that time, was the McKinnon Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. She has since become the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

Dr. Gant accepted 69 artists for the show and the resulting exhibition is a dazzling mix of painting, sculpture and a variety of other media that speak to each other, engaged in a conversation of aesthetics and as often as not, sociopolitical concerns.

“Road Crew,” an oil by Mark Fernandez, depicts two men in hard hats and safety yellow garb laboring away in an hole in the road, while another stands guard against traffic. An orange and white cone takes center stage in the foreground. 

It is as about an ordinary scene of drudgery as one might see on any given day, but the composition and scale of the work resonate with a classical renaissance sensibility. In Fernandez’s vision, the workers take on a mythic presence. That trinity of blue collar men come across as larger-than-life heroes of the everyday.

Julie Angela Theresa exhibits “Slide,” an oil and acrylic painting, which is, for the most part, a seemingly nonobjective dappling of gray, ecru and pale blue. However, in the lower left hand corner- taking up a mere fraction of the picture plane- there is an image of a toddler, climbing the steps of a small plastic backyard slide. The child stares up at all of the non-stuff above and around as if trying to comprehend it. It speaks to hope and possibility and aspiration, not yet thwarted.

There are any number of works in the Biennial which speak to the strength and vulnerabilities of women in ways that are, depending on the proclivities of the individual artists, bold or subtle or somewhere in between. 

Rhode Island self-taught artist Rebecca Boxx offers up a large dual portrait “Brittany and Aliya.” The painting is reminiscent of much of the work of Alice Neel. Her portraits often depicted a person at their most vulnerable. For example, see Neel’s “Andy Warhol,” 1970, in which the pop art icon sits shirtless and scarred not long after an assassination attempt.

Boxx’s subjects are two women of a certain age, sitting side-by-side and holding hands. Their pendulous breasts are bare, their forearms are tattooed. Brittany and Aliya may be lovers, sisters, close friends or none of those. But if their apparent intimacy suggests vulnerability, one should take note that intimacy itself can be strength.

Ana Hitchcock’s “Let’s Go!” is a wall-mounted three dimensional work containing five distinct elements (the head, torso, two arms, and a pair of connected legs of a woman) that coalesce to become one striking assemblage. Painted a bright crimson, she seems to phase through the wall like a Marvel Comics superhero or a vengeful ghost. The title of the piece- with it’s angry exclamation point- and the cocked fists show that she’s ready to rumble.

“Fight Like a Girl,” by Natalie Featherston is a tondo depicting a pair of blood red boxing gloves hanging from a nail, over a pile of lacy pink clothing, perhaps pajamas. It flips an old school playground taunt on its head.

There is much more to enjoy at the Biennial. Frankly, there is not a dud in the show (thanks to Dr. Gant and the fine museum staff). Among those of particular note are Kathy Hodge’s “The Fox,” Katie Dye’s “Stretch,” and  Derrick A. TePaske’s “Sex Pot XIII: Abyss.”

But I would be remiss to not go a bit more in depth with regard to Sonja Czekalski’s “Wedding  Dress (27,648 Women Per Day).” 

Suspended from the ceiling is a reimagined wedding dress. It is lifesize and sleeveless. It is not virginal white. It appears soiled, somewhat dirty, yellowed or gone brown. It is in a state of imaginary unraveling.

The “fabric” of the dress is 276 wire “drawings” of individual women. Each figure represents 100 women and each figure is dipped in flax paper pulp, making reference to traditional domestic craft.

27,648 is the number of reports of domestic violence made by women against their husbands or other domestic partners…every day.  Every single day.

Bummer note to end on. Think of it as a public service announcement.

The Newport Biennial 2022 Featured Artists Exhibition is on view at the Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI, until May 29.