Art by the Ocean: Exhibit No. 9 in Asbury Park
Picture an art gallery by the ocean. Tom White knows what you might be thinking — walls being lined with paintings of “sail boats and people with beach umbrellas.” Exhibit No. 9 is different.
The gallery in downtown Asbury Park, which White owns and operates with his wife and fellow artist Lois White, specializes in contemporary pieces — the kind of work you might see in New York City, where the couple lived for years.
“We like to do things beyond the norm,” Tom White explains.
The gallery’s latest exhibit, however, is a mixture of their location and their mission statement — one that pays tribute both to the Atlantic Ocean just a few blocks away and the “urban sensibility” the gallery aims to bring to Asbury.
It’s called “Take Me Deep,” a collection of paintings, photographs and mixed media pieces that take an experimental view of water. There are massive photographs of broken shells. Abstract paintings inspired by water. Off-kilter photographs of crashing waves.
At the same time, the gallery is also presenting “Circa Asbury Park,” a collection of prints that depict blown-up vintage postcards of the Monmouth County city from the turn of the 20th century — including scenes of buildings that have long disappeared and people in Victorian garb lounging on the sand.
“We want to respect the fact we’re right by the shore,” Tom says. “People come here to go to the boardwalk and they come here to check out the revitalized town. That’s kind of the connection.”
Adds Lois: “We try to give that an opportunity once in the year. It’s summer.”
In many ways, Exhibit No. 9 symbolizes the drastic makeover Asbury has undergone over the last decade — from beaten-up shore town to hip city-by-the-sea.
“It’s a unique place,” Tom says. “You have an urban center and you have a boardwalk a half-mile away. And the people coming here have that same sensibility. We like to kind of connect the dots.”
The Whites — who specialize in conceptual photography, printing and custom framing — left New York for Asbury 10 years ago. They already owned a summer home in nearby Ocean Grove, and they operated a studio in the old Asbury Park Press building.
But in 2013, just as they were deciding whether to stay or leave, a storefront on Cookman Avenue — the city’s vibrant downtown drag — opened up. And Exhibit No. 9 was born.
The gallery has a clean look — works displayed on plain white walls. “We’re very influenced by Chelsea-style galleries,” Tom White says.
Walk in, and you’re likely to find Charlie, the couple’s dog — a tiny, 12-year-old silver toy poodle — running around.
“Charlie is the mascot of the gallery,” Lois says.
Jim Watt, a well-known local architect and artist whose work is in the current show, chimes in.
“Charlie is the star of the gallery,” Watt says. “I don’t care how good your work is. You get upstaged by Charlie.”
This year marks the Whites’ 10th anniversary in Asbury and the fifth anniversary of Exhibition No. 9. In that time, the gallery has displayed work from local artists and others from around the world.
“I think the key to the success of the gallery is their relentless pursuit of really high quality,” Watt explains. “It’s a wonderful studio in every way. You don’t really get that outside of New York or other major cities.”
Lois says it’s not just that her and her husband “strive for excellence” but that “we’re partners.”
“We’re a team,” she explains.
As for “Take Me Deep?” The first thing you see when you step through the door are pieces from Tom White’s “Aqua Magnae,” a collection of high-resolution photos of things you might find along the shore.
That includes large pictures of chipped seashells flanked by photos of blue crab claws. White calls them “2D sculptures.”
His approach is to find seashells “that no one else would pick up” and magnify them to “reveal every little thing.”
“The irony is: People that pick up the perfect seashells put them in a glass jar, fill it up, and they never look at it again,” Tom says. “These are all the broken ones you wouldn’t pick up, but I make them as big as possible.”
Around the corner are some of Lois White's experimental photographs of waves — one with blue tint, another black and white, one with black polka dots, another with multicolored polka dots.
Then there’s the art of Scott Szegeski, who uses Gyotaku printing to make artistic representations of surfboards. The Whites even helped make one of the pieces, contributing photos of the ocean and clouds on a rainbow-colored board.
There’s also work by Portuguese mixed media artist Luis Bivar, which includes a striking round painting of bright-colored underwater sea life. Then there’s the long-exposure photos of beach landscapes by Todd Marti — which look more like paintings than pictures.
And some of the most unusual work in the show is from Watt, 49, who grew up in nearby Oakhurst.
Watt is an architect by trade, but he picked up painting while studying at Temple and Princeton universities three decades ago.
“I was educated by architects in the late '80s who believed there was not a distinct line between any of the visual arts when it came to an architect,” Watt explains. “That encouraged me to paint.”
One of his pieces on display is an oil-on-canvas painting called “My Ocean,” which features wild brush strokes of various colors — pink, blue, orange, white, gray.
Watt says his work “explores the tension between abstraction and representation.”
“I was interested in kind of working with a piece I thought was inspired by water but wasn’t literally a depiction of water and ocean and sea,” he explains. “Beyond that, I would leave it to the eye of the beholder to make a further interpretation.”
On a nearby wall in the gallery are his ink-blot pieces “Looking Out” and “Reflecting,” which look like blue smatterings on first glance but are actually inspired by water.
“It’s a water-based medium, so you use a lot of water with this,” says Watt, who is wearing white shorts, navy blue T-shirt, blue sandals — all splattered with specks of paint.
That Watt’s work is featured at Exhibit No. 9 is fitting. He designed the building where the gallery is located.
In fact, Watt helped design a lot of the buildings that have been key to Asbury Park’s rebuilding and renaissance. He also is a partner in Smith, a group that owns many of the restaurants in town.
The Whites have flirted with the idea of returning to New York, but Lois White says they may have found a new home for good.
“Being part of the community, all the times we wished we’d go back to New York, it’s like, I’m at a point I don’t want to go back,” she says. “Because we met so many great people.”
And with their new summer exhibit, they’re likely to meet even more.