"You Better Start Taking Me Seriously" by Lauren Rosenblum

Early Thursday morning, the doors to Art Fair 14C hadn’t opened yet. But inside, there was already a crowd.

It wasn’t in the aisles between the booths assembled at the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal in Liberty State Park, host to the latest, the biggest, and, indisputably, the best Fair yet. It was painted on canvases, scrawled in ink on handmade paper, and fashioned out of clay and seated on exhibitors’ shelves and pedestals. There were faces and figurines, portraits of people both real and imaginary, and renderings of dense assemblies of humans, clustered on beaches and in midways, or hovering, half-shrouded, in dreamscapes. There were still images of bodies in motion, emotionally fissile pictures of bodies at rest, and gripping, stomach-dropping depictions of empty spaces where bodies should be. And all around, there were eyes: peeping, flirting, darting, bugged out, concealed behind sunglasses, bare, accusing, jocular and lively. This is what 14C founder and executive director Robinson Holloway and directors Joanna Arcieri, Kristine Go, and Tina Maneca have brought us: an Art Fair that stares back.

“Slow Dance,” by Eileen Kennedy

There are pictures of rolling hills, lone warehouses, and deserted streets at the Fair, which opened last night with a VIP event and is free to attend from one in the afternoon until six p.m. today (if you choose to go Saturday or Sunday, it’ll cost you $20.) That’s Jersey art tradition, and it’s carried on in 2023 through the photorealist paintings of Garden State swamp scenes by Tim Daly (S-10), the blurred, fogged-out urban nocturnes of Deb Sinha (C-10), the gleaming, unattended vending machines of Angel Duran (A-12), and John DiLorenzo (S-3), whose acrylic and pencil renderings of modern homes are suffused with the geometric chill of the suburban subdivision. There are works that feel decorative, like the overlapping concentric metal circles by Clifton’s Wendy Letven (S-22). There’s pure abstraction (though not very much of it) like the moody, beautiful plaster paintings by Paul Catalanotto (B-4). There’s even a representation of the end of the world, conjured in cardboard by the merciless eschatologists of the Wonderbunker: BARC the dog and John Tokar, cartographers of post-cataclysm New York City, and diggers of a sandbagged hole in the floor that seems to go down, down, down into the deepest recesses of the earth.  It’s an illusion. I think.

“Bar Me Up” by Teague Smith

But mostly, Fair number five belongs to humans, and human-like animals, who have crawled out of their pandemic-era hiding places and reclaimed their spots at the center of the collective canvas. Body figuration and portraiture has returned to art shows all over the Garden State, and 14C, the biggest event of its kind in New Jersey, is the culmination of that trend.  Many of the works on view in these hundred-plus booths are single-subject portraits. But many more feature two human subjects, or three, or thirty-three, or more. These paintings foreground ambiguity and narrative complexity; they’ll keep you guessing, and examining, and rewriting your impressions. The best pieces on display at the Railroad Terminal — and there are a lot of pieces that fit into this category — reward protracted exposure and close examination. Intense concentration can be hard to sustain when there’s attention-grabbing art everywhere around you, but the Fair’s organizers expect you to get stuck on these pictures. They want you to have fun. But they’ve also screened for depth.

“Farewell,” by Gail M. Boykewich

All the men and women in these frame-filling likenesses seem to be bearing a secret. They dare you to get to know them. The holy man who stares back at us in Lauren Rosenblum’s oil painting “Reverence” (A-11) wears the collar, but his hair is ruffled, there’s stubble on his cheeks, and the air behind him is an infernal red. In “You Better Start Taking Me Seriously,” a red-lipped child wears sunglasses big enough to cover half her head, and they distort the domestic scene she’s looking at. The more you look at her, the more the initial impression of innocence falls away; she means business, and we elders underestimate her at our own risk. The young fortune-teller in Sharon Sayegh’s perky “Zoltar” (A-27) enjoys expressive latitude that Rosenblum’s subject doesn’t, but as she lays out the cards and commands the attention of bees and squirrels, there’s a similar look of impertinence on her face. In Megan Maloy’s vivid photographs (S-1), her daughter slips into a carefully assembled fantasy of the artist’s own devising. These prints look like the blown-up covers of children’s classics, but illustrations they aren’t.

From the Wonderbunker: (BARC the dog/John Tokar

Nothing about these pieces is obscure. 14C number five does not go in for blurriness, illegibility, or waffling. Lines are crisp and colors are bright, and facial expressions are visible in all their intricacy and indeterminacy. Characters are introduced with a fanfare. Portraits are freighted with symbolic meaning — and those details are right there for you to observe and puzzle over.  Even when they’re inscrutable, they’re tantalizing. The spellbinding “Farewell” by Gail M. Boykewich (S-11), an acrylic on a wooden panel, finds a young woman at a marble table in the early afternoon. She holds a spoon delicately, almost indifferently, in her right hand, but she’s left her dairy-stuffed cantaloupe unmolested. A moth levitates over her left hand, and a small scar splits her breast. Ivy tumbles through her window and brushes against her shoulder, and a crow lands on her elbow and breaks her skin with its claws. She barely notices — she stares toward the side of the frame like she’s expecting an incipient arrival. How do these whispers of overgrowth, hidden frailty, abandonment, and mortality in midlife coalesce? It’s not clear. It’ll keep you wondering.

“Sedona Earth 4” by Franki DeSaro

A portrait nearby makes its meaning considerably more manifest. “The U.S. Citizen” by ShinYoung An (S-26) is painted in oil on a bed of clippings of articles about gun violence.  The newsprint is washed in ghostly white gesso, and the young woman depicted on it feels like a spirit conjured by misfortune. Her expression is sympathetic, but the quiet condemnation lurking in her eyes stings. An’s commentary resonates with a nearby sculpture created by the indispensable Valerie Huhn (S-24), one of the most unusual artists working in the Garden State. Huhn slings a mirrored vest over the torso of a figure in a hoodie, and festoons the reflective surface with colored fingerprints. The shoulders of the sculpted subject are slightly hunched, and its hands are stuffed in its pockets; it looks defensive, besieged, defiant. Though the figure has no face — just an empty, scary, questioning recess where its head should be — it is unmistakably Trayvon Martin.

Raisa Nosova

Absence and grief are also motivating forces in a piece by another of New Jersey’s most fearless artists: Raisa Nosova (B-21). The sculptor, muralist, and portraitist cuts human-shaped holes in a ragged piece of paper. She’s let some of the peelings hang forward, like bodies slumped over after they’d been shot. To augment the howling horror, she’s painted scraggly, bare trees in the background, and left red streaks, akin to those left by a dragged animal, at the feet of the cut-outs. These people have been knocked out of existence, but they haven’t been erased — traces of wrongdoing are all around them, and Nosova dares us to notice them. Even if the artist hadn’t been outspoken in her support for Ukraine, it would be hard to miss the implications of her work.

From the Wonderbunker: (BARC the dog/John Tokar

Nosova’s piece is a stark, enlivening reminder of just how much narrative force a talented portrait artist can pack into a single still image. A simple depiction of a posture can tell a complicated story. Get two (or more) figures in the same frame, and the relationship between the characters becomes an open-ended tale that invites endless revisitation. How, for instance, can we summarize all the action in the boisterous bar-room paintings of Teague Smith (B-18), with wild-eyed waiters serving whiskey on slant-angled trays to sharpies, lushes, sad-sacks, and the powerless and apprehensive? We can stare at these scenes for hours, and never get to the bottom of them. Then there are the twee hellscapes of RJ Calabrese (C-15), who populates his oil-painted panels with the impassively dismembered and thoughtlessly defecating. His “Bunker Room: Fitness Center” is a horror show of castration anxiety, full of licking tongues, excretions, decapitations, and heaps of skulls — but it’s so meticulously rendered that it may take you a while to realize just how delightfully disgusting it all is.

“Zoltar” by Sharon Sayegh

Other crowd scenes are just as descriptive, if (somewhat) less deranged. Trouble hangs heavily over the egg tempera paintings of Eileen Kennedy (S-18), a painter who works in the tradition of mid-20th-century transgressive masters: George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, Jared French. Her “Slow Dance” is a wonderful mess of hormones, apprehension, and proprietary graspings under the light of hanging paper lanterns at the seaside. In “Picnic,” woodland creatures are astonished by two women deep in the forest, locked in a passionate embrace. Kathleen Beausoleil (S-8) washes her image of a small-town fairground in purple twilight, and gives us scores of summer people in clusters, sticking close together, queueing up for the little ferris wheel, and evaporating into the heathaze. Here and elsewhere, artists at 14C demonstrate exquisite sensitivity to the way that bodies interact with specific places. One of the revelations of the Fair is Yelena Lezhen (C-21), whose acrylic and ink pieces, such as “Mystical Breeze in the Olive Garden,” contain hundreds of faces, overlapping, peering, touching noses, each possessing a distinct personality.

Paul Catalanatto

For the fifth year in a row, painting dominates Art Fair 14C. It’s hard to quibble with an imbalance in representation of mediums when the canvases are as good as these, but it can’t go without mentioning.  Photography is one of the most fertile art forms in New Jersey; there needs to be more of it in Fair number six. Fiber art has been a preoccupation for many of the art museums in the Garden State over the past few years, including the one in Hunterdon County, home base for many of the Fair’s most dedicated contributors.  There ought to be more of that here, too. Besides the Wonderbunker walk-through apocalypse and a giant knit American flag by Woolpunk that blankets the front staircase (accompanied by a lovely projection by Jeremy Teipen), there isn’t too much at the Railroad Terminal that could be called an immersive installation. The division between the artwork and the viewer is always clear. A Frank Ippolito lightbox (C-10) incorporating a swatch of chain links from a fence uses electricity, but very little else at 14C does. Anderson Contemporary (A-21) presented a series of fetching paintings that burst into animation on a device when approached with the proper app. This brief surge of futurism aside, this Fair is almost entirely an analog experience.  

Wendy Letven

As for sculpture, it’s here — but mostly in the form of statuettes, action figures, and dolls.  Some of these, like a paper-collage bird on a pillar by Barbara Minch (A-24), were just as fierce and just as suggestive as the best of the paintings. Yet the organizers of 14C allow sculptural pieces to lean considerably further toward Pop Art than any of the paintings do. Bert from Sesame Street reimagined as a fat Buddha, see-through Lego humanoids, and Redman as a wall-breaking hip-hop collectable are entertaining to see — and expertly rendered, too, but they don’t have the narrative depth or gravitas of the works on canvas, and they felt a little out of place. Better, and more in keeping with the spirit of the event, were the clay gremlins assembled and fired by Jeanine Pennell (B-22), and hung on the wall with ambivalent expressions and monster masks over their heads. Each seemed to be the possessor of a personal story fashioned by the artist herself, ungoverned by popular culture.    

Though Art Fair 14C is an international event of sorts, with contributors from far-flung, exotic lands like Brazil, Iran, and Downtown Manhattan, this is, at heart, a very Jersey happening — proof positive that the Garden State is a hotspot for visual art in America, and Jersey City is a hotspot for visual art in the Garden State. Much of the best work in the Fair can be found in the Showcase, a juried exhibition of pieces by New Jersey artists that contains art from familiar area favorites Susan Evans Grove, Fabricio Suarez, Joe Waks, DISTORT, the late Robert Kogge, and others.  Work by these artists looks at home in the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal because they are home: they’ve spent their careers grappling with the geography, the peculiar light, the long and tortured history, and the crazy rhythms of this side of the Hudson.  They deserve to be shown in a landmarked building that represents the state’s ambitions — not merely for commercial success, but for connectivity, too.  Holloway and her fellow organizers have moved around quite a bit since the launch of the Fair five years ago, but they’ve found the space that enhances their mission and makes the whole show cohere. We’ll see them back at the railroad next year.

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,...