Could the grip of the pandemic finally be slackening? Or are we just nestled in a comfortable trough between towering waves? Here in Jersey City, where we’ve gotten smacked around by an invisible foe for the better part of the past two years, guards are cautiously coming down: we see fewer masks on the street, fewer precautions, fewer hunched shoulders and held breaths. It’s premature, perhaps, to say we’re ready to party — chances are, we’re going to have PTSD for the foreseeable future. But the first Jersey City Fridays of the year feels very much like an event on the cusp of something, and a harbinger of turned fortunes. The art is less wary, less indicative of cataclysm, a bit more playful, more whimsical, maybe even cautiously hopeful.
It would be inaccurate to call it relaxed, though. Distress signals will still be visible all over town tonight. Nevertheless, the tone of the pieces on display at Art House Productions‘s citywide quarterly event has lightened. The subject matter has, too. After several seasons of grim, depopulated landscapes and signs of urban decay (not that I didn’t love it all; I sure did), the human body is back. Some of these bodies are in peril. Others are hale, boldly sexualized, and unafraid of contact. Corporeal as their interests often are, it’s hard to imagine the people at SMUSH (340 Summit) putting on a show called “Bodies Boobies Bootys” a year ago. Maybe we really are turning a corner.
The show at Firmament Gallery (329 Warren St., at Nimbus Arts Center) centers the body, fragments it, and reassembles it, and does it all (mostly) in the spirit of fun. “The Exquisite Corpse Show” is also a kind of game — or maybe a puzzle. Curator Tina Maneca has solicited paintings of female faces, torsos, and legs, shuffled them, stacked them, and presented them as amalgams of competing but complementary visions. She didn’t tell any of the artists who they’d be matched with; she’s simply built her women from the parts she’d gathered according to her own notion of what might goes with what. Maneca enlisted many of Hudson County’s most prominent female artists to play along with her, including Eileen Ferara, Cheryl Gross, Caridad Kennedy, Beth Achenbach, Alex Gulino, Theda Sandiford, and Art House Productions curator Andrea McKenna, who contributes one of her ghostly, distressed heads, hung from a wooden branch.
This sort of aggressive curation is unusual in Jersey City. Most show organizers worry about stepping on artists’ toes. But Maneca is simply doing what all good curators do: she’s drawing connections between works that might seem superficially dissimilar in style and tone, and creating juxtapositions to startle, delight, and entertain the viewer. She’s just more aggressive about it than many of her peers have recently been. The gentler Hudson County version is on view a block to the east. “Curator’s Choice” at Novado Gallery (110 Morgan St.) features the work of six artists, including three pieces by Anne Novado herself, two in gorgeous, melting graphite. Everything in this show is beautifully barbed, especially Heidi Curko’s savage little circles and twisting brambles of black and yellow pigment. Tian Hui’s painted depiction of Deborah Harry, fierce and wary in a skull t-shirt, is similarly defensive and similarly striking. This is a show that opens with a double pane of artfully shattered glass. But there’s a sense of liberation in this work, too — a pure delight in the manipulation of materials — and that’s apparent in Eleazar Sanchez’s paintings, the otherworldly landscapes of Nathan Sullivan, and Megan Biddle’s remarkable, hefty concrete sculpture, corrugated and twisted like the folds of an accordion.
There’s a combination of post-traumatic exhaustion and steely reserve on the face of Hui’s subjects: faces long and filled with sharp angles, eyes distant but fixed, hair a bit straggly, all colors softened and muted by the torrents of ill-fortune. Lucy Rovetto’s painted figures aren’t dissimilar. “Floating,” her solo show, haunts the entrance lobby of ART150 Studios (150 Bay Street, 1st and Provost). Rovetto, whose work also appears around the corner in “The Exquisite Corpse Show,“ captures her characters in an in-between state, fading in and out of presence, sometimes taking on human shapes, and sometimes resolving to wisps of acrylic.
More dreamwork awaits one story up, where Jonté Drew’s painted meditation on masculine identity closes in the ART150 gallery after a monthlong run there. Painter Guillermo Bublik (2nd floor, studio 225) has hit Jersey City like a spring storm, and established himself as a tireless producer of mesmerizing, immersive abstract canvases, some done on a giant, wall-panel scale, some tiny as a postcard. Even his non-figurative painting feels organic and in the act of blooming. He’s only been in town for a year, but he already feels like a local cornerstone; his work is on sale in the Nimbus gift shop. There are several open galleries on the second floor of 150 Bay — a place where every visit feels like a tiny Studio Tour. Bublik’s space feels like a mandatory stop, and our best opportunity yet to catch the measure of this consistently intriguing artist.
Even the mood at the two New Jersey City University art spaces has lightened — slightly. In 2021, the work shown at the Visual Arts Gallery (100 Culver Ave.) and the Lemmerman Gallery (2039 JFK Boulevard at Hepburn Hall) was harrowing, focusing on injustice, the endless tide of waste, and environmental catastrophe. This March, curator Midori Yoshimoto answers P.E. Pinkman‘s funny, savage, pained daily pandemic chronicle at Saint Peter’s (open tonight at the Mac Mahon Student Center @ 47 Glenwood Ave.) with a different sort of life-logging project. Julie L. Green, who became famous for painting one thousand last meals of death row inmates on ceramic plats, pointed her brush in a more optimistic direction during the last period of her career (she died in October 2021.) For “Thank God, I’m Home,” Green turns her attention to the first meals of the wrongfully convicted after their release and return to society. Sometimes she paints the certificate of commutation right into the image, along with the chicken sandwiches, condiments, and fast-food wrappers. Though none of these are rendered on ceramic, she cheekily borrows the aesthetic of high-end china, and generates some productive friction by placing motifs from classical European and Japanese art alongside contemporary corporate logos and signifiers of consumer culture.
Green’s work radiates compassion for the released prisoners, and for everybody facing the brute force of the carceral system. The activism that drove her to humanize the abject on death row is present in these happier pieces, too, and this afternoon, from 12:30 until 2 p.m., NJCU and the Lemmerman will be hosting a virtual talk with two similarly motivated individuals. Kirk Johnson, a former national correspondent with The New York Times, and Sara Sommervold from the Center on Wrongful Convictions will discuss imprisonment in America and the unequal application of justice. (You can register for the talk here.) But if the political implications of “Thank God, I’m Home” are impossible to miss, so is the show’s granular, human-scale storytelling. Taken together, these paintings chronicle a social problem. Piece by piece, they speak of small lives crushed, and then restored, by the vagaries of fortune. The overwhelming feeling of the show is one of immense relief after an ordeal, and the thrill of eating hot French fries after a time when it seemed like French fries might be forever out of reach.
Painter Ben Fine‘s pandemic-era streetscapes do speak of a time like that — maybe not as desperate as days spent on Death Row, but fraught with enough indeterminacy and peril to last anybody’s lifetime. In bright, cheerful colors and bold, confident strokes, Fine captured the Jersey City we all know, yet the neighborhoods were eerily depopulated, and the apartment buildings took on the guarded feel of a rampart. Jersey City was not designed to accommodate a siege, but a siege was exactly what we lived through, and Fine was one of the reporters who got it right. “Coming Into Focus” pairs Fine’s work with those of another poet of the haunted city: 150 Bay St. painter Deb Sinha, whose depiction of glowing lights on a dark Queens street was one of the highlights of the “Signature” show mounted at ART150 earlier this year. What song will these artists sing from the walls of the Majestic Theatre Condominiums (222 Montgomery Street)? Something mournful for what we’ve lost, or hopeful, for where we’re going?
Finally, an addendum to a prior column: three weeks ago, I expressed my frustration about the Commuter Gallery on the concourse of the Journal Square PATH Station. Each time I tried to visit during the hours posted on the door, it was closed. I’m happy to say that since I wrote that piece, the Commuter Gallery has been much more reliable. I did manage to catch “Graff N Roses,” the solo show by 4SAKN, and I came away impressed. The artist, a master of wildstyle tags with a characteristically serrated style of lettering, demonstrated that he’s just as resourceful when he’s working with smaller pieces. His superimposition of graffiti over familiar images of the city — sometimes hanging in the sky, sometimes smothering the streetscape — suggested that he’s thought hard about the relationship between street art and the built environment. “Graff N Roses” is no longer up at Commuter Gallery, but a new show opens tonight: photographer Kurt Boone, displaying images of last year’s Mural Festival. This time around, I’m not leaving anything to chance. I’m catching the opening.
See you around town tonight,
Featured image: “Thank God, I’m Home” by Julie Green