Welcome to Dan's World, where award-winning Bayonne journalist Daniel Israel reviews and reports on the current art exhibits at the Dollhaus II gallery.
BREAKING NEWS: Joe Waks's first solo show now on display at the Dollhaus II
Story and Photos by Daniel Israel
The first solo exhibition by “Neo-Socio Absurdist” artist Joe Waks is now on display at the Dollhaus II art gallery at 23 Cottage Street in Bayonne. The exhibit opened with a reception on March 3.
Waks is a Bayonne native and a painter, dubbed “The Stippler” by Dollhaus II. He lives in the city with his wife Nancy, their dogs Buster, Ty, Bayonne, and Maxine, and their cat Kitten Waks.
Many attendees packed into the gallery to see Waks newest works. Masks were optional, but encouraged.
Souvenirs were on sale at the show, featuring a Waks-themed beer cup available for $5 and whiskey tumblers for sale for $10. In addition to that, there were stickers for $1 and tote bags for $15 as well as the usual Dollhaus II merchandise.
In an interview with award-winning journalist Daniel Israel after the show opening, Waks said he has been involved with art and painting since as long as he can remember. He has long been inspired by history and the newspapers of yesteryear.
“I was always doing art as a kid,” Waks said. “When I was a kid, my mom would drop me off at the library. I’d go get on the microfilm or microfiche and start looking at old newspapers and pulled ads and stuff like that. I’ve still been doing that.”
Waks’ fascination with the arts continued into adolescence. However, he went to college for anthropology, opting to continue his art career as a hobby.
“I wanted to go to art school when I was getting out of high school,” Waks said. “My parents didn’t really think it was a great idea. So I went to a liberal arts college for undergrad, and I was an anthropology major. Not exactly super practical either.”
Waks found work for a couple of years as an anthropologist and later went on to go back to college for law school. However, while he was taking college courses for both anthropology and law, he was also still taking art classes.
“I took a couple of elective painting classes and really had a great professor. He basically put the brush in my hands to go knock yourself out. So I started painting a lot in college. Throughout law school and after I was just kind of doing it. It was more like a hobby.”
That arrangement worked fine for Waks until about 2006 or 2007. That’s when he began to show his work to the public.
“I was like ‘no one sees my work,’” Waks said. “That’s when I really started showing around in the area.”
Since then he’s been showing a number of his finely crafter paintings. His most recent exhibit now on display at the Dollhaus II is entitled “Parade of Values- Defenders of Freedom,” which he said is inspired by his life-long fascination with old newspapers and the advertisements that graced their pages.
The exhibit featured the unveiling of 12 new paintings completed by Waks during 2022 and 2023. He called it a crescendo of a lot of his artistic work thus far.
“I’ve been working with that sort of imagery for a little while,” Waks said. “Most of it comes from old newspapers. This work is a culmination of a lot of using that imagery. But this is really bringing a lot of different elements together.
For example, this is the first time Waks has introduced color into his works in a big way. He utilizes colorful polka dots, a common theme in his work, to accent his art’s commentary on newspaper advertisement, with the pops of bright color also being inspired by a childhood memory.
“This is my first major show where I’ve really used color,” Waks said. “When I was a kid, we used to go to the beach in South Carolina. I was very visual starting at a young age. There was this big old white beach house that had polka dots all over. They weren’t really in a pattern, but they were all over the house. I used to make my parents take me down there, even when I was four or five years old.”
To Waks, polka dots represent the whimsical past, and go hand in hand with the advertisement imagery he utilizes which is supposed to be happy but also represents also the darker side of consumerism and capitalism. The objective to make money by convincing others to buy a product is also made clear in his paintings.
“The whole show is kind of about the ambivalence of consumer culture capitalism,” Waks said. “The dots are a happy thing. You can’t not smile If you look at polka dots. So eventually, I actually painted polka dots on the back of my house in Bayonne. Then I decided to work them into this new work.”
However, this isn’t exactly Waks first rodeo when it comes to painting color or polka dots. He said he has recently completed murals in North Bergen and Jersey City where he used similar motifs.
“It’s kind of a polka dot streak,” Waks said. “I’ve been experimenting with color, like in small paintings that I was showing in group shows. I had a show in the city two years ago where I used color but they were really small and it wasn’t polka dots, it was a different kind of pattern. So this is like the first time I’ve done this kind of work.”
Those motifs were not accompanied by the consumerist iconography and advertisement imagery of Amercian capitalist society starting in the 1950s and beyond. This work including those symbols, with obvious inspirations drawn from pop artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton, and Edward Ruscha, is not like any he has completed before.
“The main theme is like the two sides of a coin,” Waks said. “I’m ambivalent, like I don’t think that our consumer culture and our capitalist society has like worked really well for everyone. I’m doing okay myself but I look at the country and it’s not working out for so many people. At the same time, I’m an ambivalent consumer. I have like 60 pairs of sneakers. So it’s celebrating consumerism but at the same time, it’s a caveat or the other side of the coin of over consumption or convincing ourselves that we need this or that to make our lives better.”
Waks crafts his masterpieces by first collecting old newspapers advertisements from the 1950s to the 1970s. Using the newspaper images, he makes a collage and adheres them to the canvas. Then Waks painstakingly paints over the canvas with thousands of tiny brushstrokes. The texture of the black oil paint and beeswax adds another dimension in contrast to the New Jersey license plate yellow to the already out-of-this-world pieces.
Wak’s work is fun and whimsical aiming to make viewers laugh, yet they also invite those who gaze upon them to think. While the paintings may be playful, they are double-sided commentary on American consumerism that went hand in hand with suburban life at the time of the ads used in his paintings.
This stems from Waks’ enthusiasm in history and also being a collector and archivist, seeking to decontextualize these common icons and emblems of the era. In “Parade of Values- Defenders of Freedom,” he aimed to illustrate a nostalgic and idealized past through the capitalist advertisements of the past and his own relationship with them, whether positive or negative.
Waks’ pieces are a commentary not only on the past, but on the country’s continuing obsession with consumerism and how it bled into the fabric of American culture. He faces this reality with both humor and irony in the text and images he chose, although there is a slight feeling of hope amid the critique he serves.
“There’s not one particular theme of each painting,” Waks said. “Taken together, that’s what the paintings are about.”
The exhibit by Waks will run until April 9. For more information, go to xdollhausx.com.
Waks concluded: “I try to make my work so it’s accessible, but it makes you think, makes you laugh. I hope people enjoy it for those purposes, hopefully find it aesthetically pleasing and hope it makes them think a little bit.”
Contact Daniel Israel at email@example.com.