"Perspective vs. Perception" challenges traditional notions of "female art" at City Without Walls

"Perspective vs. Perception" challenges traditional notions of "female art" at City Without Walls

There was only one class Sheni Saavedra dreaded the thought of taking during her time at Rutgers University-Newark. It was a course called Women in Art. “The prejudice I had was I thought it was all about being a woman,” the art history major recalls. “I was like, ‘I think that’s boring. I don’t want to talk about flowers. I don’t care about flowers.’”

But in the end, Saavedra says, the class taught her something else entirely: Female artists are not necessarily feminist artists.

It’s a lesson that struck her so deeply that the 22-year-old made it the theme of “Perspective vs. Perception,” the new exhibit she curated for non-profit arts gallery City Without Walls, running through May 11 at the Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark. The show features pieces by seven women of scattered ages — all of whom, Saavedra says, demonstrate that female art is often more complex and diverse than some give it credit.

“When you talk about a male artist,” she explains, “you don’t talk about how it’s their male story. It’s just about art. Why can’t female artists be shown in that light as well?”

Her goal was to highlight pieces you might not expect to have sprung from women. Like the mind-bending geometric shapes in the work by Kati Vilm of Newark. Or the Braille letters that Agnieszka Wszolkowska of Jersey City has crafted from yarn.

“Often what will happen if you’re a minority — not a white male — is they box you,” says Lisa Conrad, a Newark resident who also has pieces on display. “’Oh, this is the Haitian artist.’ Or ‘This is the female artist.’ … Your art is obviously discussing feminism, but that’s not true. That’s like saying, ‘Oh, you’re a male, so your art is obviously talking about being a man.’ No, because as an artist, we all choose different things to talk about in our art.”

The exhibit is also an example of something else you might not know: that Newark has a flourishing art scene. Even Saavedra, who grew up in New Jersey’s largest city, was unaware until a professor told her of a few galleries downtown.

“I was like, ‘What? You’re lying,’” she remembers with a laugh.

In Conrad’s case, Newark made her feel at home after years of bouncing around. Though she grew up in East Brunswick, family troubles forced her to shuffle to New Brunswick to Highland Park to Somerset to Spotswood to South River. Then, she tried to settle in Philadelphia but lived in three different places over three years and found it difficult to break into the city’s competitive arts community.  In 2010, she moved to Newark and has been there ever since.

Conrad’s pieces on display reflect her long journey. They feature black and white prints of urban buildings, sometimes splashed with bright streaks of spray paint or acrylic paint. Occasionally, she will run her pieces through a sewing machine, too.

“You look at Lisa’s work,” Saavedra says, “and you’re like, ‘Wait. What? Are you sure? I don’t think a woman did that.”

What makes Newark special, Conrad says, is that it supports artists at all different stages in their careers— from up-and-comers to those who are better known.  City Without Walls has made helping the former its mission. The gallery — which opened in 1975, making it the oldest non-profit alternative art space in the state — aims to give emerging artists like Conrad an outlet to show their work and emerging curators like Saavedra a place to put a show together.

“I’ve been in Newark for three years now, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m still here,” explains Conrad, 31, who also helps run Newark Printshop, an organization for printmakers.  “I feel like this art community is much more accessible and there are much for opportunities for someone at my level.”

“Of anywhere in New Jersey, Newark is where it’s at,” she adds. “We have space. We have resources. We have galleries.”

"Perspective vs. Perception" also features the work of Aileen Bassis, Darleny Garcia, Alyssa Lawler, Sanna Zhao and Linda Hu.

Hu, a Rutgers-Newark student, is the exhibit’s youngest artist — and happens to have one of the most striking pieces on display: a painstakingly detailed drawing of gorilla faces she created using nothing but black pen.

“You stand back, and you’re amazed,” Saavedra says. “Then, you get closer, and you become even more amazed at the intricacy.”

“We have a place like City Without Walls where we can show this work,” the curator continues. “Where otherwise, she probably wouldn’t be seen for many years on.”

"Perspective vs. Perception" is open now thru May 11, 2013 at the Atrium Gallery of Seton Hall University School of Law, Newark, NJ. The exhibit is free and open to the public, but by appointment only. Call cWOW to schedule your visit at (973) 622-1188.

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