Batman Comes to Short Hills

Bette Blank’s painting of a Passover Seder will make non-Jews want to convert. Who knew a four-hour meal without leavened bread and so many interruptions to read from the Haggadah could be such fun?

Here, in a formal dining room with a very large table and an oriental rug, a family gathers around the Seder plate and a bottle of Manishewitz. The youngest is propped on a chair to ask the four questions and Elijah the prophet, for whom a cup of wine is always poured, actually makes an appearance. He’s wearing a robe and the long white beard is a giveaway that he’s a biblical character. The room is busy with patterned wallpaper and other decorations, and everyone refrains from nibbling the matzoh.

“Bette Blank’s lively and often humorous work reflects her unique vision,” writes Mary Birmingham, who curated an exhibit on Ms. Blank’s work at the Hunterdon Museum in spring. “Drawing images and inspiration from popular culture and everyday life, the artist invites viewers to see the world through her eyes… We can imagine ourselves having a conversation with Blank’s Marilyn Monroe, Sigmund Freud or Prince Charles because she makes them convincingly human…”

Bette Blank: One Thousand Words is on view at the Anne Reid ’72 Gallery at Princeton Day School through Dec. 17. Curator Jody Erdmann selected Ms. Blank because her works such as “The Diver” engages students.

In “The Diver,” we see a red-headed male figure in a Speedo, springing from the high board and somersaulting into the tiled pool. The arc of his movement curves around equations written as if in chalk on the pool-blue ground. PDS Upper School math teacher Will Asch explains the equation: “The board is depressing a spring, then it rebounds and throws the diver at an angle… there’s a horizontal and vertical component to his velocity and as he pulls himself tighter he will rotate faster.”

“The physics people love that painting,” says Ms. Erdman.

Ms. Blank, a scientist with a doctorate in material engineering, imbues all her paintings with narrative and in many cases writes text over them.

“Batman in Short Hills,” a bird’s eye view of a subdivision cul de sac, tells the story of modern suburbia: kids play hopscotch in the street while all of life goes on around them — a couple is kissing in a window, kids ride their bikes, people walk dogs and push strollers, there is a rabbit in a cage, a dog waits in a black mini van, a man is grilling on his deck, a deer is eating flowers, a small boy is “watering” an area behind the house, a pair of empty chairs face each other in someone’s yard. All the while, a naked woman stands in a bay window, taking in the scene as we take her in, and a larger-than-life Batman walks stealthily through a backyard.

In “San Remo Night,” we see the famed New York City apartment building on Central Park West, a sort of cousin to the Dakota, where John Lennon was murdered. Spiderman swings from one of the two towers, and there are flying saucers and UFOs, as well as a crescent moon, against the indigo sky.  Dozens of the building’s windows are lit and filled with a cast of characters ranging from King Kong and Queen Elizabeth to the devil and Einstein — even Waldo is somewhere to be found. You almost have to look twice to see there’s a holdup going on front and center, by a pond with a toy boat.

“It’s a painting about life,” says the artist, who was inspired by a photo from The New York Times Real Estate section, although much of the imagery is from her head..

Even the urologist’s office is not off limits as the setting for one of Ms. Blank’s detailed, whimsical canvases.

“Bette’s House” is, indeed, a self-portrait, with Ms. Blank painting at an easel in a dining room that is carefully appointed with a Persian rug and doily on a walnut table. The shelves are filled with books of her favorite artists: Chagall, Frida Kahlo, Botero, Alice Neel, Soutine, Bonnard, Rousseau and the Rev. Howard Finster.

In the kitchen of Bette’s house, a table is set for two, pots are hanging, lettuce waits to be tossed into a salad; the living room includes the piano Ms. Blank plays, along with pictures of her children, now in their 40s. Upstairs there’s a bathroom, a den with books on math and science, and of course the bedroom with a husband in boxers, holding the remote as he sits in bed watching TV.

Ms. Blank, who lives in Madison, grew up in Brooklyn and frequently travels there to paint Coney Island (fitting the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone into one painting) and Brighton Beach. “You can eat in one of those Russian restaurants,” she says.

When she graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, she wanted to live in “the country” so attended Alfred College in upstate New York, where she majored in engineering. “I never thought I was good enough to paint and my parents weren’t well off,” she says. She married at 18, had two children, and then went on to earn her doctorate at University of California at Berkeley.

Through the years, she has taught college chemistry and physics,  played cello, piano (“when no one is listening”), filled dozens of sketchbooks and painted, all while running her business: Dr. Blank’s Review, an MCAT review course.

Then, in 2000, her mother died. Coping with her grief, Ms. Blank knew it was time to devote herself to painting full time. While her mother was in the hospital, she painted “Tug of War”: family members gather around Ms. Blank’s mother’s deathbed; floating above the bed are angels, who are really her past loved ones who have gone to heaven. They are waiting to take her away, but those on the ground are struggling to hold on to her.

Ms. Blank remembers her mother as an early feminist, an important figure in her life who encouraged Ms. Blank to quit her job and paint. With “Tug of War,” Ms. Blank went from painting still lifes to narrative paintings. She put all her relatives into a painting of Brighton Beach.

Chronicling the contemporary suburban experience, she paints in the Laundromat, at the nail salon (women getting their toe nails painted while George Bush goes on TV to announce the Iraq War), at a bris, a sushi palace, a shoe salon, even her salami sandwich.

In 2009, she received a Fellowship to make a print at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Print and Papermaking in New Brunswick. The result is “The Pink Cadillac,” surrounded by Aretha Franklin’s lyrics.

From the “freeway of love” to the medicine cabinet: Ms. Blank has recently forayed into sculpture, including one of Alleve, Vaseline, nose drops, Listerine, dental floss and even Sigmund  Freud’s bottle of Prozac. From polymer clay she has sculpted Freud, George Washington and her husband.

Where does Ms. Blank get her ideas? “They’re in my head,” she says. “When you’ve lived life you have the experience… and the jokes.” That naked woman staring out the bay window in the cul de sac? “She’s a desperate housewife. I put her in the painting because she’s funny.”

Bette Blank: One Thousand Words is on view at the Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery, Princeton Day School, 650 Great Road, Princeton, through Dec. 17. Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

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