Art about artists making art
Art about artists making art
by Dan Bischoff/The Star-Ledger
Tom Nussbaum: Listen, The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, 68 Elm St., Summit. When: through July 31; 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. How much: Free. Call (908) 273-9121 or visit artcenternj.org
There are a dozen resin statues by Montclair artist Tom Nussbaum on the lawn behind the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit through next July, one of them a colossal head lying on its side with the figure of a smaller man lying in its ear, titled "Listen." Inside, Japanese-born artist Kunie Sugiura is showing a mini-retrospective of her camera-less photographs, including large "photogram" portraits of artists like Jasper Johns, Polly Apfelbaum, Ushio Shinohara, and Mark di Suvero, made by posing them against photosensitive paper and strobing their silhouettes.
The trait both artists share is they make art that is about making art, or at least about the internalized processes that are the foundation of creativity. And it doesn't get much better than this.
Fans of Nussbaum's reticent, understated style may already be familiar with this series of statuettes, which are cast in resin and painted in matte acrylic shades of teal, ochre, red and brown. Most stand less than 18 inches tall, some much less. The pieces in "Listen" are all about relationships between two figures -- like the man lying in another's ear, or a crow with a small blue head in its beak ("Hungry Bird"), or a large head and a smaller one casting sidelong glances at each other ("Ear to Ear"). They have a totemic quality, with more than a hint of Native American carving (and Native American humor) nestled within their forms.
With "Listen," however, we have the first example of one of these pieces blown up to a large scale. The huge head is about the size of a sidewalk planter (it was financed with two grants, one from wealth manager and art collector Pat Bell of South Orange, and another from the Minneapolis Foundation -- Nussbaum is originally from Minnesota).
"Actually, it was made with the same technique that's used for half the buildings in Las Vegas," Nussbaum says. "It's carved from styrofoam and given a fiberglass coating that makes it weatherproof.. The figures are not meant to be specific individuals. I'm interested in the symbolic value of the figure. They work more as relationship pieces, suggesting a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious mind."
And it isn't always a friendly conversation, as in "Pounder," a large resin head with a little man on its brow beating the head with a stick, or "Shadow Boxer," a large head sliced in half just above the lips with a pugilist throwing punches from the head's pate. Some are even more internalized, like "Mother," which shows the large head of a man peeking out from between the legs of a woman.
Nussbaum is a state treasure, an artist who fiddles not only with his own creative dynamic but with family psychology and even community issues (he's designed a number of public projects here, including a light rail station and several other public commissions). He does it not only with simplified, toy-like form but with the kind of ambiguous expression that makes you come back repeatedly to the image to search for meanings.