Love & Fear
Studio Montclair, Inc.
Through April 29
Montclair Public Library Gallery, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
By ANTOINETTE MARTIN
For Montclair Local
Love and Fear at the Library! It could be a great title for a novel, or a film thriller, but “Love & Fear” at the Montclair Public Library is a provocative new art exhibit on display through April 29, presented by Studio Montclair as part of its Portfolio Series.
Within a half hour of its opening on Sunday, April 7, the exhibition sparked conflict.
“A lot of people were getting upset,” said Studio Montclair’s executive director, Susanna Baker about one particular painting by artist Gwenn Seemel during a panel discussion held at the library on Sunday. The acrylics painter and art blogger had two pieces in the show, both reflecting “fear in the age of President Donald Trump.” One is a mural of orange-hued faces, Trump at the center, and more than 100 faces of individuals active during his administration surrounding him. The piece is, mounted just at the entry to the hallway gallery from the library, visible through glass doors to every passing patron.
But that painting was not the problem.
Her other boldly colored and elaborately detailed work, “Hello Kitty President, Available in a White House Near You!’ also has Trump at the center, pictured wearing a red baseball cap inscribed “Make American White Again.”
“It was making people extremely uncomfortable,” said Baker. “People just didn’t want to see those words on the wall.”
But with the phrase “sh**y, sh**y, sh**y” inscribed in small letters amidst a busy background, SMI decided to pull the painting, honoring a policy of not displaying curse words or nudes in the library’s public space. (They subsequently learned that policy was no longer in effect).
It was anguishing, said collection curator, Marianne Trent, who had selected works from the portfolios of six artists for the show — but the choice was made to take down the painting immediately. At a Sunday afternoon panel at the library, five of the artists — including Seemel — were philosophical about the decision.
But all would have liked to see the painting stay up, precisely because of its power to generate conflicting feelings in viewers. “Bring on the conflict,” said Jersey City artist Theda Sandiford. “Where there is conflict, there is an opportunity for something new to arrive.”
Sandiford’s “Masking Fear” is a self-portrait depicting a distorted face wearing a blue mask, done with iridescent shades on metal. A companion self-portrait expresses her inner feelings in the face of being gossiped about.
In fact, Trent said, submissions for the show were predominantly about fear, perhaps because “it is present in such a big way in our lives right now, every day on the news.” Submitted artworks regarding love tended to reflect “smaller, more ordinary” occurrences of daily life, she said.
Artist Amy Charmatz, seated in a wheelchair during the panel discussion, remarked that she has suffered from depression, surgeries and physical limitations. However, her work holds up the side of love, sprightly and resilient — despite a difficult journey — in this exhibit. Charmatz’s multi-media pieces are done in primitive style, layered with paint and glitter, and annotated with her original sayings.
Carol Radsprecher combines abstract and figurative images in her work, done entirely on the computer. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she described herself as a “fearful and anxious person.” During the panel discussion, she said her work is not political, per se, but expresses her reactions to a world she finds “very scary.”
Joanie Landau, another digital artist, described her horror at the kinds of angry messages she has started seeing online, and in messages in public places, including graffiti and signs on fire hydrants. “People make art in this way every day,” she said. “I walk down the street and see a 3-D world of emotion.”
As to whether controversy is good, the artists did not agree. Landau said she really could not say whether she agreed with Sandiford that art changes lives by exposing viewers to different, sometimes shocking viewpoints. Radsprecher said that powers-that-be are generally “implacable,” immunizing themselves from challenges to their authority.
“I do it for myself,” she said, and on that, every artist at the table could agree.
NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect that it was SMI and not library personnel who made the decision to remove Seemel’s painting from “Love & Fear.”