During the 2022 Studio Tour, the Gallery at Art House Productions was, ever so briefly, open to the public. Curator Andrea McKenna put together a crisp show that highlighted many of the Art House Productions’s favorite creators, including several who’d exhibited strong work at the organization’s old gallery on 17th Street.  Here was a reminder, in case we’d forgotten, that these Art House characters have good taste. That show was a highlight of Studio Tour weekend.  The weekend ended. The lights went back off.

Tonight the glass doors on the ground floor at 345 Marin Boulevard will swing open to the public once more.  The Art House Gallery will grant its annual boon to holiday shoppers looking for something intriguing for their stockings. The Affordable Art Show — featuring hundreds of reasonably priced pieces — kicks off with a reception at six o’ clock.  As they did at JCAST, McKenna and Art House Productions are presenting works by area stars: BARC the Dog, Lucy Rovetto, Theda Sandiford, Mustart, Cheryl Gross, Megan Klim, and other Jersey artists with well-earned reputations for creativity and daring.  For a few holiday weeks, the original fantasy of the Powerhouse Arts District will be partially fulfilled.  There’ll be art, at street level, done by excellent painters and sculptors, there to be apprehended by collectors and passersby alike.

But tonight’s event will also be a reminder that not all is as it should be.  Art House Productions is, primarily, a performing arts organization. The Hendrix — that’s the name of the condominium complex at 345 Marin where the Art House has taken residence — promised to supply Art House Productions, and, by extension, the City of Jersey City, a black box theater.  That was the deal that the developers struck with the City, and the terms under which the builders were granted clearance to erect their tower in the Warehouse District. They’re supposed to justify their presence in the Arts District by assisting an organization that has been at the center of the arts scene in Hudson County for the better part of two decades. We were assured that the Art House Productions theater would be running by the middle of 2022. It’s almost 2023, and there’s no theater in sight.  

Art House Productions is doing what it can to compensate. On Dec. 12, the Gallery will host a reading of a new work by playwright Maddie Dennis-Yates. Welcome though this is, it’s no substitute for a real show, under real lights, in a real performance space. That Art House Productions is going through with a reading anyway suggests some understandable frustration. Tonight, on the final Jersey City Fridays event of the year, there’ll be arts events all over town — but Art House, the organization behind Jersey City Fridays, still doesn’t have a home base to put on performances of their own.

This is more than just an inconvenience.  It’s a test case for the entire Powerhouse Arts District concept.  Art House Productions is arguably the most visible, most mainstream arts organization in Jersey City. Through Jersey City Fridays programs, fundraisers, and community outreach, the directors have made their organization into a local cornerstone with interests that transcend the aesthetic. If Art House Productions can’t get a solid foothold in the District, what hope does anybody else have?

Because Art House has been entertaining Jersey City for more than twenty years, we tend to think of the organization as indestructible.  But they’re subject to the same financial and social pressures that smaller institutions face, and the cost of operating without a home theater for over a year is not inconsiderable. 

Throughout its long history, Art House Productions has been peripatetic. Its directors have kept headquarters at Victory Hall, the Cast Iron Lofts on the Hoboken border, and a space behind the Journal Square Path Station. They’ve always made it work.  Never have they been up against a pandemic, though, or a squeeze in arts funding like the one we’re experiencing nationwide.   

We can’t afford to lose one of our local cultural flagships; heck, that flagship can’t afford to take on any more water than it has.  I can’t help but notice that the Hendrix understands the value of Art House Productions: they’ve been crowing about the organization in their online marketing materials.  They don’t want to mess this up.  It’s time to step on it.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Are You There?

Tonight is one of the last opportunities to see one of the year’s oddest and most original shows.  “Are You There?” by Benedicto Figueroa runs for a few more nights at Jersey City’s clubhouse for the odd and original: SMUSH Gallery.  Figueroa, one of the directors of SMUSH, is also a poet — and like all poets, he’s had to think about ways to engage audiences at a time in human history when people don’t necessarily like to sit down and read.  Rather than perform his work, Figueroa asks gallerygoers to step right into it.   At “Are You There?,” poetry is all over the place: it’s on the walls, on posters, on scrolling bodega-window LED lights, tucked in a book inside a newspaper dispenser, printed on t-shirts, scrawled on bedsheets like a banner hung in front of a fraternity house. Press play on a cassette machine and you’ll hear Figueroa’s poetry; raise a Viewmaster to your eyes and you’ll see it.  Should you want more poetry, follow the instructions on a specially devised road sign. Text a few keywords to a number provided, and your phone will light up with verse.

Benedicto Figueroa

In coarser hands, this sensurround-style experience might feel monomaniacal.  Yet the cumulative effect of “Are You There” is friendly — even if most of the writing isn’t particularly happy.  Figueroa’s poetry presents the narrator as a bruised soul, reeling from painful encounters with family members and partners, reflexively compassionate and communitarian, and cautiously finding his footing.  Almost all of it is first-person free verse: dispatches from an internal battle in which the protagonist is desperately attempting to calibrate his own sense of self-worth.  “So Only I Can Hear” is a confrontation with the little voice that says “I am nothing/I deserve nothing”; “Oranges” is an excoriation of an addict too crazy to trust and foolish to love (his cats seem to dig him, anyway.)  The poem on tape, read by SMUSH mastermind Katelyn Halpern, chronicles psychic deterioration precipitated by an ugly breakup. Haunting the show are the spirits of a pair of hard-working immigrant parents whose love and suspicion of their offbeat child are equally real — and equally consequential.  In short, Figueroa has written us an emo album minus the music.  He’s pouring it all out, letting it rip, creatively oversharing.  No wonder the words won’t stay on the page. 

As this is a SMUSH show, there’s a conceptual dimension to it, too.  “Are You There?” is designed to remind us of the many ways that language interacts with the built environment — and to make the point that the city is literate, and is constantly talking back to its inhabitants, even those who don’t want to listen.  Figueroa wants to remind us that poetry is everywhere, and encourage us to keep an antenna out for rhythm and verse, even at the dusty ends of cassette players, behind cloudy bodega windows, and inside creaky El Especialito boxes. In that way, Figueroa’s work is reminiscent of the paintings of SMUSH favorite Buttered Roll, who also sees the city as a place of peril, beauty, lyricism, and chance interactions between damaged people.  But mostly, “Are You There” is an act of straightforward self-elaboration from a writer who wants to be known, followed, and understood, and who is leaving a breadcrumb-trail of words across all the surfaces he encounters. You can get yourself on Benedicto Figueroa’s wavelength tonight at 6:30 p.m., tomorrow from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., and on Sunday from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m.

trismccall@gmail.com

Avatar photo

Tris McCall

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...