Seeing American Bodies at Newark Museum

photo by me (2019)

This is a picture of me “throwing out” my drink at the Newark Museum a few months ago. Apparently, even if they’re giving out wine at the unveiling of a new show, you can’t walk around with it lol. Anyway, what is it about the impulse to take a bathroom mirror picture? Something about the size, semi-isolation, and lighting make them irresistible, whether you’re at home or out and about. It’s like, you’re in there looking at yourself already, so taking a quick picture seems relevant.

I really only took the picture because I finally got an IG and needed a picture to post. I think bathroom mirror pictures, in terms of social media, precede traditional selfies. Myspace was once the land of bathroom mirror pictures, and the genre has really become a staple. In them, you have a lot of creative control. You can easily get a shot of your face and body. You are also both photographer and model, though, strangely, the photography equipment is featured in the picture with you too.

When my son and I got up to the second floor (after the picture and after chugging down the cup of wine), this was the first piece we saw:

photo by me 2019 (featuring catspeed)

“African Goddess Looking Forward” (2015) by Michalene Thomas is big and beautiful. The figure’s nonchalant pose looked comfortable on the wall, but her deep stare says something more about the price of relaxation. The patchwork, the colors, the textures—Thomas’s piece was the perfect opening to the new Seeing America series, which consisted of its own collage of sculptures, paintings, and video installation. It’s a long-term display of pieces ranging from hundreds of years ago to now that tell a uniquely American story.

photo by me (2019)

Situated just around the corner from “African Goddess” was an unlikely counterpart entitled “Man on a Mower” (1995) by Duane Harrison. “Man” is a hyper-realistic sculpture that my son thought was real for a minute (it also prompted him to sit or stand like a statue periodically throughout the evening). The guy is holding a crushed-up diet Sprite in his hand and looks like he’s in a bit of a daze. Hot, maybe? Bored, tired? It reminded me a lot of King of the Hill mixed with Homer Simpson.

Together, these two pieces captured the essence of the range of American art in this collection. Though one must be pieced together and the other is a solid block, both “African Goddess” and “Man” feature a seated figure that is only kind of lounging. Both are also from the perspective not of the figure, but rather of someone who would have close-up access to that specific environment—the interior of a home, the lawn of a house. From experimental beauty to raw averageness, this first room quickly defined the experience of American body as a performance in comfort.

Newark artist Jo-El Lopez’s painting entitled “Millennial Guardian Angel” (2016) takes an alternative look at the body politic:

photo by me (2019)

This twisted religious image flips the light of god into the light of technology. Bald and naked, this perfectly angelic body walks in front of a glass-stained window. The viewer stares at him staring at his phone. The angel is completely and comfortably tuned in, so he lacks the direct stare of “African Goddess” or the hazy eyes of “Man.” This virtuous scrolling pose ironizes complaints about “millennials” always being on their phone.

Talking to Lopez that night a few steps away from his painting, he mentioned that someone else noticed that it was the first time they’d seen a cell phone in a painting. I realized then that I didn’t think I’d seen it before either, they’re mostly in photography.

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