Are Clifton's crazy mannequins a work of art?

Jim Beckerman

Art is a little like Dr. Wayne Gangi's display of red-white-and-blue, bikini-clad mannequins in Clifton: You know it when you see it.

Wait — you didn't know that was art? 

Obviously, such a thought hadn't occurred to the irate Clifton neighbor who took a pair of garden shears and tried to dismantle the sexy tableau in April (she was charged with criminal mischief).

"I hope it's art," said Dr. Gangi, the neighborhood dentist on the corner of Grove Street and Robin Hood Road, who has been causing a kerfuffle with the scantily clad dummies arrayed on his front lawn.

Easter mannequins

"I consider it art," Gangi said. "But it comes easy to me, because there's a creative side of it that's fun to do. I think of it as a fun distraction from my own world of practicing sometimes a very tedious profession."

Many people have found it a distraction, fun or otherwise. "Nobody was going to do anything about it, so I did," the woman with the shears told a radio host.

And now they're baaaaaack.

The mannequins, which had been gotten up as Playboy bunnies with fishnet stockings and pink lingerie for Easter, have returned with a new theme. 

This month, they're wearing sunglasses, red-white-and-blue bikinis, and are toasting each other with champagne flutes. Around them, pink flamingos, beach balls, Chinese lanterns, American flags, and wading pools evoke Flag Day, summer cookouts, and good old Fourth of July picnics.

A much-discussed Easter display by Clifton dentist Wayne Gangi continued to grow with lights April 16, 2019 and a collection box after the Notre Dame cathedral fire.

"It's Art Deco, like a yesteryear theme of the New Jersey shore," Gangi said. "The Jersey shore gets a bad rap for how trashy it can sometimes be, but it's a fun kind of trashy."

The 11 carefree mannequins on Dr. Gangi's front lawn clearly don't give a hoot what you think of them. They don't care if you think they're lewd, crude, degrading to women, or not suitable for a family neighborhood.

More:Red, blond and blue-haired mannequins wearing stars-and-stripes bikinis

More:Easter mannequins, lawnmower litigators and neighbors who fail to be neighborly

More:Clifton Playboy Bunny mannequins now raising money for Notre Dame Cathedral

This isn't the first time Dr. Gangi has caused a stir, since he began his dental practice in Clifton 20 years ago.  

His elaborate Halloween displays, in the same yard every October, have drawn huge crowds — and also the ire of police, who have complained about the traffic. He had his mannequins on parade then, too. But those same dummies, dressed up as Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, provoked no comment.

It was when Dr. Gangi stripped them down to their scanty panties that people — some people — were aghast.

They reacted, in fact, much as Sen. Jesse Helms, and the conservative American Family Association, reacted in the early 1990s when public funding for so-called "obscene" art, by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and others, became a public debate. They tried to shut the artists down — in Dr. Gangi's case, with a pair of scissors.

That, of course, does not — in itself — prove that what Dr. Gangi does is art.

But it does suggest  that Dr. Gangi has one thing in common with some of our greatest artists. He knows how to shock, intrigue, mystify.

"It's out here to provoke a thought, provoke a meaning," he said. "What does it meant to you? Whatever it means for you is what I want it to mean for you."

Spoken — at any rate —  like an artist. “Make of it what you will," director Alain Resnais once said of his films. "Whatever you decide is right.” 

For art's sake

But is it art? That, of course, depends on your definition of a word that's been defined, and re-defined, many times.  What is art? People often dismiss the question with a defensive shrug. "I know it when I see it," or "I know what I like," they say.

One might defer to Leo Tolstoy, who said that art is  "a human activity whose purpose is to transmit to us the highest and best feelings to which man has risen."

Sounds like Dr. Gangi's Playboy bunnies, right? Maybe not so much — though who's to say what noble thoughts those fishnet stockings and two-piece bathing suits might inspire?

More to the point, perhaps, is a quote from Jean Cocteau. The purpose of art, he said, is to "astonish us."

Now that sounds like Dr. Gangi. Certainly, his beach party is astonishing. It also may bear a family resemblance to some surrealist and Dada works of the early 20th century by people like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Those, too, sometimes involved mannequins, a favorite motif. And some of them ended up in museums.

Dr. Wayne Gangi, a Clifton dentist known for his holiday decorations in front of his Grove Street office decorated for Halloween in 2009.

"I think what he's doing sounds like the use of mannequins in surrealist shows of the 1920s and Thirties, which were very much intended to shock," said Gail Stavitsky, chief curator for the Montclair Art Museum, who hasn't seen Dr. Gangi's display.

"When I hear about something like that, I think about the history of taking objects from daily life, and making something new with them that some people might define as art and some people might question," she said.

Anybody can call anything art, says Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers in New Brunswick. The more relevant question is whether knowledgeable people — a museum board, say — have vetted it, and proclaimed it worthy.

"If an artist says that he's making an artistic statement, that defines it as art," Sokolowski said. "That doesn't mean it's good art — or bad art."

Consider, finally, one last definition of art, from Oscar Wilde. "All art," he said, "is quite useless."

That, if nothing else, certainly applies to Dr. Gangi's lawn.

The mannequins don't have a message. They don't have a moral. They're just fun. 

"This is meant to be a temporary distraction," Gangi said. "There's enough tragedy in the news. This is make you forget about your woes, to make you see this thing and have a good laugh."

Email:; Twitter: @jimbeckerman1