BLOOMFIELD / WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Morris Museum had to close its doors to visitors like every other nonessential business when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which meant that planned exhibitions were put on hold.
Or were they? Not completely, it turns out.
The museum opened its first virtual exhibit, “Dissonance,” part of the New Jersey Annual Arts Competition, on May 18. It was planned before the coronavirus took over normal life, but the show, with the theme of tension, instability and conflict, became more relevant by the day. All of the pieces, including those of Bloomfield photographer Liz Menzie and West Orange painter Sarah Canfield, are available to view online at www.morrismuseum.org/events/nj-arts-annual-2020/.
“I of course wanted to see all of the other artists,” Menzie said in a phone interview on May 28. “But I love how they’ve responded, doing the virtual release. I think they’re handling it perfectly. It creates even more excitement for when we can go into the museum, because we’ve already been engaging with the pieces.”
Menzie’s photographs are a documentation of a time pre-lockdown, a time before stay-at-home orders were signed. Menzie attended a cypher — an event where rappers gather together and freestyle — in New York City, after learning about cyphers from the Netflix show “Hip Hop Evolution.”
“It was so fascinating,” Menzie said. “It was great to see these people just rapping and enjoying each other. It was very much a family. I went back and started bringing my camera.”
After weeks of observing the rappers and taking pictures from the crowd, Menzie was invited into the middle of the circle, where she was able to get a better view and see more action.
“When they saw I was serious, they invited me into the middle,” she said. “You can only get so much from behind the crowd. They saw I was coming to enjoy it.”
The one disadvantage that Menzie has as a photographer is the lack of audio — you can’t hear what a rapper is saying by looking at a photo. So she has to make up for that elsewhere.
“They’re doing something with their voices, but you can’t hear that,” Menzie said. “So how else are they showing emotion? I wait until I can see that. Some of them don’t know that I’m there, or they don’t care. Those are my favorites.”
Canfield is a painter, but she uses photography in her work as well. Often, she’ll take photographs of objects and use the still lifes in a mixed-media piece, using digital photography programs. It’s what she did in her “Dissonance” piece, “Eyes Wide Open.”
“I feel like it’s the perfect title for what we find ourselves in,” Canfield said in a phone interview on May 28 about her piece and the exhibit. “It’s these clashing goals. We want to find a way to interact physically with art, but we can’t. It’s an uncanny predicament.”
She often switches the medium she uses based on what the piece needs, and pastels are one tool Canfield often revisits.
“I toggle between using different media,” she said. “But I’ll use the same subject. Each medium forces me to learn new things. Then I can choose the media based on what the image needs. There’s different effects.”
Unlike Canfield, Menzie doesn’t edit her all-black-and-white photos very extensively, instead choosing to do most of the work with her camera in the moment.
“Black-and-white teaches you to focus on composition,” Menzie, who works in finance, said. “What I love about it is that it quiets everything; there’s not as much to look at. I don’t travel with a flash. So the important thing there is to know your camera. I’m not very well versed in Photoshop at all, so the less I feel I need to edit, the better.”
The artists are hoping they can go see the exhibit in person eventually, but until then they’re working on finding new ways to create art while social distancing. Menzie especially has had to adapt, because the days when she could take her camera out onto a crowded city street are gone, at least temporarily.
“I’ve been thinking, what should we be taking pictures of?” she said about quarantine photography. “I’m going to be taking some self-portraits in June and July.”
At first Canfield wasn’t able to work in her regular studio, so she was simplifying things and creating pieces with fewer mediums.
“My routine is similar. This is sort of my skill set, being alone and making art,” she joked. “At first I wasn’t able to get into my regular studio, so I had uninterrupted time to work. The pastels I always go back to to ground myself, and I enjoy using those when times are stressful. But I am looking forward to when we’re able to be in a gallery again.”