Bob Justin is one of a kind, a man who didn’t expect to be an artist but just couldn’t help himself. The creative impulse has led this former Plainsboro resident to one-man shows at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, the Frank J. Miele Gallery in New York, and the Eisenhower Hall Theater in West Point, N.Y. His work has found its way to the Outsider Art Fair sponsored by the American Museum of Folk Art and into the Laumeir Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri.
Discovered over two decades ago as a “folk artist” whose compelling and life-affirming found object assemblages and “primitive” masks rarely fail to elicit a smile, Mr. Justin is now represented in the permanent collections of Plainsboro Township, Bloomfield College and the American Cyanamid Corporation in West Windsor.
Currently 15 paintings by the artist are on display in the Gallery at Plainsboro Library. The exhibition, titled “Out of Darkness,” presents acrylic paintings that are bold in execution and raw in expression. They represent the artist’s emotional journey through years of heart and lung ailments.
Unlike Mr. Justin’s whimsical primitive art, the paintings in the current exhibition come from a dark wellspring of pain.
“Bob has a special talent for creating pieces with personality,” commented the show’s curator Donna Senopoulos. “His intriguing and whimsical pieces have been shown periodically at the library and it is always a pleasure to exhibit his work. This time it was important to him to show paintings that are an emotional response to the pain he has had.”
Given the content of the paintings, Ms. Senopoulos thought carefully as to how they should be presented on the walls of the gallery space. “I decided that a simple straight line was the best way to handle this material. Such a uniform presentation is a departure for me, but I felt that it was needed for these graphically complicated images,” she said.
Describing the work on display, Mr. Justin said: “I find [these] pictures to be difficult to describe rationally, as they were done under the stress of emotions born of illness. Repeated episodes have always triggered renewed sessions of demons that are born of a dark side beyond silence. I leave the public to interpret, accept, or reject the work as they wish.”
Some have detected a West African influence in Mr. Justin’s work, most notably in his masks. It is also evident in these paintings rendered in dark elemental hues. Some are self portraits; some include hermaphrodite figures. A few, like the one shown here, include words and phrases.
A self-described “free spirited non-conformist,” Mr. Justin stands outside the mainstream. His road to art was prompted by illness. Born in 1941, he grew up in Keyport, Monmouth County, and worked in a variety of fields, though never for very long. He jokes that he’s had over 300 jobs, including stints as a real estate agent, Cadillac sales manager, and the head of his own executive search firm, among many others.
A heart attack forced him to retire in 1991, at which time he began selling his collection of tools and other items at the New Egypt Flea Market, where he now maintains a studio in an old Army barrack.
While handling vintage items, Mr. Justin rediscovered a childhood penchant for finding faces in everything. He began constructing what he affectionately called ‘critters” or “guys,” combinations of found objects inspired by tools, dolls, door knobs, discarded industrial and household objects that found new life in his hands.
His first artistic endeavor came about almost by accident when he adorned an old wooden chair with a broken pick axe. He called the assemblage, “Texas Longhorn” and placed it alongside his flea market table. His folk art career was born when someone came along and offered to buy it for $75.
Eventually, Dorothy Spencer, curator for the Arts America Program of the United States Information Agency (USIA), found her way to the self-taught artist. Her interest resulted in several of his pieces being shown internationally and locally. After he was discovered by a noted collector and board member of the American Museum of Folk Art, he had several one man shows.
Mr. Justin is the subject of a Cablevision documentary which can be viewed along with his portfolio at www.bobjustin.com.
A public reception for the artist will take place at the gallery on Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. “Out of Darkness” runs through May 28 in the gallery of the Plainsboro Library, 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro. Hours are Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.