Driven to abstraction: Two Morristown art shows define the term differently


Two shows, two flavors of abstraction.

Robert Atwell’s “hard-edged abstraction,” on display at the Simon Gallery in Morristown, requires the viewer to fill in all the blanks. His assortment of brightly colored enamel-on-aluminum geometric shapes suggests plastic Colorform toys of yesteryear.

Five minutes away at Gallery Egan, Kimberly Martin’s oil-on-canvas paintings supply a little more information. They are tangles of body parts and facial fragments in frenzies of motion and color that could be interpreted as violence or passion. What inspired these works? Visitors are challenged to crawl inside the artist’s head.

Take Kimberly’s painting Just One Kiss. To these eyes, it looks like two men locked in mortal combat.

“It totally looks like what I was struggling with, allowing someone to get closer to me,” Kimberly, 43, said at her opening reception on Friday, which for reasons of weather, coincided with Robert’s opening night. “All of my paintings have some personal emotional story.”

Robert, on the other hand, decided years ago to remove the back story from his works.

“They’re intentionally ambiguous,” he said. “I used to be a very political painter, and at some point I had to separate myself from that.”


robert atwell
Robert Atwell, painter, professor and pond hockey star, at the Simon Gallery in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Because I have to sleep at night!” Robert, 38, said with a laugh. Politics are exhausting; saving the world is a heavy burden for any artist.

He discovered his niche during a job between college and grad school. He worked for a sign company–creating graphics for store windows and factory walls, sometimes perched on scaffolds 200 feet off the ground. Enamel-on-aluminum panels was a medium of the sign industry that lent itself to bold colors and 3D shapes.

Those shapes might be inspired by a room, but that’s as autobiographical as his creations get, explained Robert, an art professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and an avid pond hockey player.

Each work is hatched on a computer, using Illustrator to create the forms and colors. Then he attempts to replicate the computer image freehand, thus forming something new.

“It looks easy, but it’s not,” said Penny Wise, an aspiring painter from Morris Township. “If you go up close and see how they lay that paint on the canvas, that technique is what makes you an artist. And he’s got that.”

This is Robert’s second show at the Simon Gallery. Mary Ellen Simon, who co-owns the gallery with her husband Harry, came across his work while surfing the web.

“I just loved it when I saw it. When you see it from a distance you hope it’s good. And when you get up close and it’s good, it’s wonderful,” Mary Ellen said.

But what makes it good?

New York gallery owner Kathryn Markel has shown Robert’s paintings. She sees a clarity and “eccentric specificity” in his approach that gives an ever-present “hint of narrative.”

“I love his palette. I think it’s brave,” Kathryn said at Friday’s reception in Morristown.

She thought for a moment before elaborating.

“Most people want a nice picture of a boat, a horse or a barn,” Kathryn said. “If you’re from the South, you want a horse or a boat. If you’re from the North, you want a barn and some pine trees.

“Anyone can learn to paint nice realistic paintings of a barn. The problem is, you can’t tell Joe Schmo’s nice barn from Mary’s.

kimberly martin
Kimberly Martin, whose exhibition will be on display at Gallery Egan through Feb. 1. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“What I look for in a painter is their own secret, special language. If you have your own alphabet, your use of brush strokes, paint, color, it’s yours alone and goes beyond what’s taught,” she said.

Robert’s alphabet evolved sufficiently to land him a second show at the Simon Gallery, where 16 paintings are priced from $900 to $4,000.

“Artists must come back with a new body of work that shows me they’re pushing it,” said Harry Simon.

Back at Gallery Egan, meanwhile, Kimberly Martin, a former human resources director, was selling a painting titled, Women Provoking Klimt’s Chair, for $4,000.

It may look abstract but, as the title indicates, there is a back story. It’s a response to The Kiss by Gustav Klimt that depicts women as bland, according to Kimberly.

“It’s a rebellion against not wanting to be bland,” she said.

Buyer Nancy Sulla, who recently opened the S.H.E. Gallery (Supporting Human Equality) in Boonton, was drawn in by the colors and mix of figures. The message–“a rebellion of women”–clinched the deal.

“It’s the replacement for the Salvadore Dali in my living room,” Nancy said.

Beckett Marcoux-Tully, age 14 months, makes a point at painter Robert Atwell's show in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Beckett Marcoux-Tully, age 14 months, makes a point at painter Robert Atwell's show in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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