ART REVIEW; Knots, in Practice and Theory

March 19, 2006
The New York Times

NOTHING warms the heart and strengthens faith in the future like a feisty group show. And right now, no exhibition samples more skilled artists, at more levels in their careers, from all over New Jersey, than ”(k)nots” in the Visual Arts Gallery here at New Jersey City University.

”(k)nots” is the project of the Jersey City artist-curators Michelle Vitale and Brian Loughlin, who are exhibiting their work alongside that of others for whom they felt an affinity — either intellectual or in terms of materials and processes. The idea snowballed, and the exhibition has 14 artists.

The word knot denotes an intersection of interlaced material — a unifying bond, or tight cluster. But it can also refer to a complicated problem. In this way artworks may be understood as knots, the artist struggling to unravel a solution to a series of formal, technical and material challenges.

Tony Pemberton’s 10-minute video, ”The Children Met Lenin in Spring” (2001), nicely encapsulates the exhibition’s basic theme. Shot in Russia, the video samples interviews with Russian citizens about the myth of Lenin in Russian society and the hold that his myth has over the Russian people. It is an effort to unravel a historical knot.

Dahlia Elsayed, who is among the best artists at work in New Jersey and who is a perennial exhibitor in New Jersey group shows, also makes a happy fit here. Her wan, diarylike paintings map her daily routines, family history, fears and desires in an effort to puzzle out her identity. Her unflinching truthfulness is her greatest asset.

Damian Catera works the other way around: he prefers to tie conceptual knots. The artist, impressed by the elegant, woven formal structure of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, has used randomization algorithms on a computer to disassemble a recording of the composition and then randomly reconfigure it: weird stuff.

Much of the other artwork here is more literal but no less interesting. Among the painters, Jennifer Mazza paints compact intersections of hands; Margaret Murphy paints kitsch images over a background of pictorial knots; while Roberta Melzl paints decorative swirls of cord, ribbon or rope. Each is decorous and accomplished.

Then there are many knotty objects of one kind or another, from Andrew MacNair’s architectural fantasies made of packing material to Ms. Vitale’s meshlike rope-fiber art and Jason Watson’s sculptures of invented letter fonts that he incorporates into drawings. These puzzling items are the visual equivalent of higher mathematics.

Taking time to look at the two dozen artworks on display is well worth it, for each presents a fresh perspective on things around us. Looking at this show, you realize that we are surrounded by knots of one kind or another, many of our own making. Sometimes art can help us untie them.