Amelia Shields paints cars that look like hot dogs. Fairground hot dogs, mind you; nothing upmarket. Her roadsters have two puffy outer wings that swell like the halves of a split bun, and a narrow interior where the driver sits. In the mixed-media show “Joy Ride,” which closes amidst fanfare and special events at Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison Ave.) this weekend, those munchmobiles traverse highways that cut through cities and curve toward empty expanses.  They promise escape: release from tension, instant gratification, cheap and momentary thrills, much like stuffing your face might provide.

The painter’s decision to collapse the car and the hot dog into a single storytelling gesture is typical of the economy of her work. Shields will never make two marks when one will suffice. Her canvases are often deceptively simple, and greet the viewer with the offhand quality of art made by children.  But upon closer inspection, there’s nothing offhand (or childish) about what Shields is doing.  Everything she commits to a picture is there for a reason — and there is always far more going on in her bright, restless paintings, pregnant with smears of color and enlivened by their unruly lines, than there initially seems like there is.

Engagement with Shields’s work means the absorption of telling detail: the texture of sparse grass, the beleaguered hunch of a character’s shoulder, the floral patterned upholstery on a drab sofa, a sloppy parking job in a lot between charmless buildings, a yeti with a dangling penis leaping up the steps of a hot pink stairway to nowhere.  Like a sharp-eyed editor, she knows what to include and what to leave out; like a hellion on the highway, she knows when to slow down and take care with her curves, and when to throw caution to the wind and step on it. 

Shields’s cruise captures the velocity of the joyride, but also the aimlessness too.  Frame by frame, her characters do what they can to dodge their feelings of confinement: they hike in a shaky line through overgrown trees, they guzzle coffee, they slosh in puddles, they kiss with open eyes, they nap.  But the world around them is vexed.  In “Bye,” a sleepy-eyed character in the foreground bids farewell to a house that resembles a shuddering face.  Framed by a flame-scorched sky, two other houses perch, askew, on a sharp slope.  It looks as if they’re all poised to slide into a heap.  The hot dog car at the “Traffic Stop” halts at an intersection of vital, troubling human activity: a frowning infant plops from the womb of a worried woman, a man grimaces and twists red furrows into his brow, a child hangs from a sill by his knees.  

The window is a recurring motif in Shields’s work: it’s the sad dividing line between what we can influence and what we only wish we can touch.  In “Pup,” a woman watches from inside a house as two lovers embrace in the street; a leaping dog, fur streaking every which way, represents her jealous fury. The protagonist of “Window” stares out longingly at a greensward and a blue sky.  As sunny as the colors are, pandemic-era grief suffuses this show.  It’s a projection of the id, but it’s also an elegy for everything we missed out on when the doors were locked.  If we’re acting irrationally now — if we’re leaping out at the day and joyriding around, heedless of consequences — well, the lid on the jack-in-the-box was pretty stifling, wasn’t it?  

Shields drives the point home emphatically by parking a plush convertible (half of one, anyway) against the western wall of the gallery.  The artist has equipped it with a vintage radio and a Jersey license plate, and angled a fan straight at the occupant of the driver’s seat.  You’re encouraged to pick appropriate headgear, seat yourself behind the wheel, and let the wind whip through your hair as footage of Route 7 unspools behind you. You may be going nowhere, but you’ll be getting there in style.

This Thursday night (Jun. 29), Shields and Deep Space will heighten the mood of indulgence (and sweetness) by throwing an ice cream social.  The artist and her partners will be dishing out scoops to visitors at 7 p.m., and they’ll keep it going until the good stuff runs out.  The gallery will also be open on Saturday from 3-9 p.m. and Sunday from 1-7 p.m.  After that, Shields packs up her “Joy Ride” and disappears over the horizon. Chase those wheels while you can.

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,...