For The Star-Ledger
At the beginning of this month, to protest the Muslim travel ban proposed by President Donald Trump, the Museum of Modern Art took down art by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, James Ensor, Oscar Kokoschka, Francis Picabia and Umberto Boccioni, and replaced it with artwork by Iranian- and Sudanese-born artists “to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this museum as they are to the United States.”
Two weeks later, on Feb. 15, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College removed or shrouded all artwork by or donated by immigrants in protest of the same order.
Newark’s City Without Walls has turned its gallery into an interfaith meditation space through the middle of March, responding, new Executive Director Fayemi Shakur says, to a political climate that emphasizes religious and ethnic hatreds.
“All the Muslim people I know are absolutely lovely,” Shakur says, “and we wanted very much to allow visitors to dwell on the commonalities of shared experience among all religious people. So we asked three artists, all of whom have some background in theology, to collaborate in creating a healing space out of the gallery.”
The three artists in “Sanctiloquence” — Marc D’Agusto, Eric Valosin and Russ Wills, all based in suburban New Jersey — have collaborated before in Gravity Arts Initiatives, a nonprofit that aims to revitalize communities through art and innovation (Wills and D’Agusto are co-founders). But this is the first time all three have collaborated on a single project.
“Sanctiloquence” has transformed the gallery, which routinely sponsors meditation groups on Wednesday evenings, with temporary walls, light projections and updated versions of Buddhist sand gardens. The main door and skylights have been draped in black and the entrance desk has been equipped with bright, pastel thrift-store statues of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, a bodhisattva and a Holy Family, with votive candles.
Valosin, an adjunct professor at the College of Saint Elizabeth and a graduate of both Montclair State and Drew University, is the tech guy, using digital projections to create illusions of depth in flat paintings and a pressure-activated light show that connects three sandboxes scattered throughout the gallery. Tools — rakes, gardening trowels, a paint brush — are provided to make marks in the largest sandbox, as in a Buddhist sand garden. The deeper you press, the brighter the projections on a wall sculpture by D’Agusto and on two smaller sandboxes. The remote reaction is meant to emphasize the spiritual idea that our spirits are all connected — that a butterfly’s wings can start ahurricane.
All three artists worked on a wound-like opening, made in a false wall of painted plywood. The niche, like many D’Agusto works, is shaped like agothic arch — or amihrab — filled with layered abstract sculpture made of resin, bone, ash and various metals. Iron armatures thread through the gash and lace the walls around it, like blood vessels trying to knit the two ends together. Valosin’s digital light projections overlay and somehow deepen the cut.
Wills works with fused glass, one of the oldest materials for spiritual art in the West, fashioning gothic arch-shaped niches of solid glass or making magnified photos of swirling melted glass as meditation aids. One piece has examples of clear fused glass “panes” by Wills through which Valosin shines his digital projections on a flat painting that looks like a Christian church window designed by Sol LeWitt. Light scatters as if by reflection off water in bright sun, and shapes take on a three-dimensional depth.
Wills, D’Agusto and Valosin all share a Protestant background, but, as Valosin says, “We felt it was important to show how all religious traditions share some concepts about creating a contemplative space, and that, in a way, they can reinforce each other. And in today’s political climate, that’s a space we could all use right now.”
Add the right music — “I’ve played Gregorian chants,” Shakur says — and the gallery can be a kind of light show layered over images that elude sharpness, forcing the mind to reach for patterns that never quite coalesce. Like a philosopher’s stone.
This is CWOW’s second exhibition under Shakur’s direction, part of the alternative space’s resurrection after more than a year and a half in the dark. One of the oldest independent galleries in the state, CWOW was run as a kind of artists’ collective for decades, mounting shows and building a library of members’ slides for curators to choose from. Members can still submit images, but the library has gone digital and only just started to rebuild.
Shakur had worked at Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art until she took over at CWOW. Victor Davson ran Aljira for nearly three decades until he went to Express Newark, the new Rutgers University art program in the old Hahne’s Department store on Broad St.
Aljira’s serene, internationalist approach to art is bleeding into the rest of the city’s arts structure.