Innocence is a loaded word. When applied to art by critics, it’s often a backhanded compliment: a hint to the reader that the work under examination lacks the moral and psychological complexity we’ve come to expect from masterpieces. At best, it’s a testament to the artist’s purity of vision. At worst, it’s a version of the oldest critique in the book: the one that says “a child could have done that.” 

Hamlet Manzueta courtesy Art House Productions

Technically, a child *could* have done some of Hamlet Manzueta’s pieces. It would have to have been an extremely talented child, though — one with a budding eye for composition, and a natural sense of the power of color, and an impish sense of humor, too. Some of Manzueta’s stick figures and smiley faces do fall flat: They get over on cuteness, or crowd-pleasing appeal, or a straightforward promise of delight that proves to be all too ephemeral. But then there are others that are positively searing. They communicate, in a few brisk strokes, a combination of fragility and impossible hope that is rare to behold in any art form. In these paintings, Manzueta sings in a high, clear voice, one that contains a note of terror in it but gives no sign of breaking. In these paintings, Manzueta demonstrates exactly how powerful — and sophisticated — innocence can be. 

“One Year After,” a retrospective exhibition that will be on view at the Art House Gallery through the end of March, places those simpler works in the company of others that aren’t quite so guileless and establishes Manzueta as a painter of considerable breadth and talent — more than just our homegrown answer to Daniel Johnston. Curator Andrea McKenna also shows pure abstract works, large painted canvases with quasi-representational figures on them, and at least one image (a flower garden) that could fairly be called impressionist. Some of his people aren’t cartoonish at all: A few portraits have the smeared, lurid, near-violent quality associated with DeKooning. Manzueta, who died last year well before he had a chance to grow old, had the self-confidence and omnivorous appetites of a prodigy. If there was an avenue of self-expression open to him, he was going to try to navigate it.

It is, however, the stick figures and smiley faces that he was best known for when he was alive, and it’ll be those same figures that guarantee his reputation now that he’s no longer around to guide us through the maze of his output. These are the rawest encounters with Manzueta’s muse available, and they speak of his trepidation, his courage, his sense of aloneness in a cold and impersonal world and his belief in the mutability of identity, particularly gender identity. Those who remember Manzueta’s excitable youth recall an artist who tore hard at the uniform of masculinit, and who, through participation in the regional arts scene, freed himself from some of its stifling restrictions. In his heyday in the 1990s and early ’00s, Hamlet Manzueta was a visible figure on both sides of the Hudson: a drag queen, a reveler, a neighborhood character, a public access television host, an ambassador of queerness in a place as gay-friendly as Jersey City. Most of the art in the “One Year After” show is from this period, and it captures the struggle for self-assertion of a Latin American transplant whose ethnicity and sexuality always marked him as an outsider even when he was (as he often was) the life of the party.

The Art House Gallery isn’t a big one, but they’ve still mounted a show of considerable depth: one that presents Manzueta in full color and celebrates his life alongside his art. There’s a prominent picture, for instance, of Manzueta in the guise of Dolores, a drag persona replete with exaggerated makeup, clothing, and expressions commensurate with the Downtown scene in the gay ‘90s. With wall space limited, Art House has compiled scores of Manzueta’s sketches in a series of books; one of these traces the transition of a glum man who looks rather like the artist into a pretty woman. These booklets contain the artist’s fixations and his particular worldview: boys in ill-fitting Napoleon hats, girls with unreadable faces, gender fluidity, style elements and cultural signifiers linking Manzueta’s work to the tradition of Latin American cartoon drawing. It’s fascinating, but it feels a bit like a cheat code to the more significant paintings on the wall: a turn to the back of the textbook to steal a glance at the answer key.

Hamlet Manzueta courtesy Art House Productions

It’s possible to put too fine a point on all of this. Manzueta’s human figures may well be self-portraits of a sort, but they operate just as well as sketches of neighbors or fictional characters or emotional states. In an odd way, Dolores was Manzueta at his most conventional since he presented himself in accordance with the drag styles of the time. His pictures of women conformed to no similar expectation. Instead, these were visions conjured from his own personal chase after the feminine. This pursuit brought the best out of the painter: His finest works are all representations of girls. These include the line drawings of optimistic but fragile characters (including one in a turtle shell) and the more sophisticated images, too, including a wild sweep of red paint that manages to capture the elegance of a party dress. Some of his women barely have faces, but they all have symbolic significance: The first piece in the show is a girl with arms protectively in front of her, besieged on all sides by thick green and brown vertical stripes. It’s unsettling, but defiant, too.

After he became sick, Manzueta’s pace slowed. By necessity, this makes “One Year After” a turn of the clock back to a prior era of local art — one that wasn’t so long ago but which feels distinct from the one we presently inhabit. Hamlet Manzueta came to prominence at a time when queerness and pan-Americanism were emerging as dominant forces in Jersey City’s artistic production. He was, in many ways, the perfect artist for the moment: a gender nonconforming polymath who never forgot his Dominican heritage. The story of art in Hudson County can’t be told without him. Yet as “One Year After” shows, his best work transcends the moment in which it was made, and it transcends identity categories, too. It does what all good art does even after the artist is gone: It keeps resonating.

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,...

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