Looking at an abundance of artworks: that’s what makes the Studio Tour fun. But visiting artists’ houses during the Tour is almost as rewarding. Artists’ homes and studios often resemble the work the artists are doing, and a visit can feel like stepping into a painting. Private galleries and home studios exist at an intersection between architecture and individual expression, public and private space, inside and outside. Art Fair 14C founder Robinson Holloway — the director of the group that’ll be running the Studio Tour — maintained an elegant gallery on the first floor of her Newark Avenue building. Jim Fischer’s house on the western slope of the palisade in Jersey City Heights is a treasure box of colored glass and skylights, brightly painted walls and exposed woodwork, and an interior chamber modeled on the James McNeil Whistler’s Peacock Room. As nice as both buildings look from the sidewalk, the exteriors barely hint at the wonders within.
I imagine Fischer and Holloway would recognize Natee Lambert as a fellow traveler, or, perhaps, a fellow homebody. Lambert, a painter and interior designer, has refashioned a not-atypical multi-story dwelling near the Richard Street light rail station into Greenville Arts, a handsome showroom for his work. Since the entire space is his to outfit as he wants to, he’s able to control the encounter between viewer and painting better than he’d be able to if he allowed a gallery to act as an intermediary. He’s selected home decor that resonates with his work, and reinforces its textures, its energy, and its peculiar play of color and shape. Different rooms in Greenville Arts have different attitudes, and Lambert has grouped his paintings as a museum curator might, hanging his works according to tone in a manner that encourages visitors to the house to experience each discrete space as a variation on a theme.
Yet Greenville Arts doesn’t feel like a museum, or even a gallery. It feels like a house — and encountering Lambert’s paintings in a domestic space makes them feel personal. “Southside,” a piece in which a quartet of unsmiling human figures with their faces in boxes stand together on a city street amidst a spatter of red paint speaks of beleaguerment and perseverance amidst danger. A woman with greying hair and square-lensed spectacles shares “Inside” with an impassive-looking brown-skinned man; they might not be representations of the painter’s family, but they radiate elder energy, and maybe a whiff of parental disapproval. A remarkable portrait of a mother covers a female figure in a buttoned-down coat with streaks of red, yellow, and blue paint until the contours of her face practically melt into the maelstrom of color. In a bedroom on an upper floor, a trio of “Judges” with wide-eyes and partially occluded faces stare out at a solitary “Juror” with raised eyebrows and hair standing at attention, peering through a veil of gray shadow.
None of Lambert’s human figures look happy: they’re often confined within rectangular shapes, or they have rectangles painted directly on to their bodies. They’re straining for orderliness and rationality. Nevertheless, the impression they generate is one of emotion intense enough to make all right angles buckle.
Would these paintings speak quite as eloquently in a different context? It’s hard to say. For the moment, that question is irrelevant. They’re right where they should be, and Lambert has no incentive to move them. Instead, he’s opening up Greenville Arts to visitors, by appointment, on Wednesdays and Sundays. Gathered together in a domestic space, the paintings become part of an amalgamated work of art: the art of the sanctum intself. At the moment, Helen O’Leary doesn’t have a tour schedule for her home on the Eastern end of Bramhall Avenue, but if she did, visitors would experience something that transcends the communicative limitations of any one of her excellent artworks. O’Leary teaches sustainability at Penn State, and she’s brought those values to a home that positively rattles with personality — a festooned with objects that she and her husband have retrieved, refashioned, and found ideal places for. That means lamps made of scores of tongue depressors, a medicine cabinet with too-small drawers and big, satisfying wooden knobs to pull, and a gorgeous antique bathtub, porcelain and bossy, right in the middle of the bedroom.
I mention this not to accentuate O’Leary’s delightful eccentricity, but to put her sculpture in context. The artist’s work is all about fitting things together, and finding the perfect jagged edge that lines up with another edge in a manner that makes both pieces sing. What she’s done on the three floors of her narrow house is the same thing she’s up to in her studio, which just happens to be a converted garage in her backyard. O’Leary’s sculptures featured many pieces of discarded wood jigsawed together and held in place by smaller bits of wood. Some of these pieces are stained (she manufactures her own dyes) and others are left unmolested by color. The little wedges of wood that act as binders look from a distance like stitching, and the larger pieces are thin enough that they curve like sails and undulate like skin.
There’s a great feeling of lightness to all of O’Leary’s work uncommon among those who make art from reclaimed materials. Everything in her garage, and in her home, is bright and buoyant, with the effervescence that derives from self-sufficiency. The ecological implications of O’Leary’s practice and the pure beauty of her sculptures makes her a natural fit for Art Fair 14C, but her pieces are such pleasant tenants in her home that it might be more appropriate to bring the party to her.
Or she could bring them a few blocks east. Right around the corner from Mordi’s Sandwich Shop and the Pinwheel Garden, a group of sculptors are presently exhibiting in the garden level of an unassuming red brick Monitor Street townhouse. “Seeing Other People,” a group show at Evening Star Studios, features work from some of Jersey City’s most imaginative fabricators in three dimensions, including Shamona Stokes, whose eerie but harmonious fertility ceramics share wall and shelf space with the delicate, organic-looking pottery by Michelle Kurlan Schneider, a pair of homey-looking feet on an artfully ribbed black platform by curator Doris Caçiolo, and a menagerie of figures from host Beth DiCara, whose studio in the backyard contains a kiln as big as a hot tub.
Unless you were looking for it, the Evening Star Studio is just a likely to elude your notice as Lambert’s Greenville Arts on Richard Street and O’Leary’s DIY Museum on Bramhall. Nevertheless, there are marvels behind these ordinary doors. Jersey City has always been a place of shrines in alleyways and beauty stashed in basement corners. A nondescript house on a generic city corner could be the semisecret headquarters of a magic-maker. A visit to a living room can be more vertiginous than Six Flags. As we move to redefine the Studio Tour for its thirty-fifth year, and decide what experience to highlight and what to de-emphasize, that’s something for all of us to remember.