Serious artists hope that their work will be influential.  Few artists, however, would call themselves influencers.  In 2023, we’ve come to understand the term as a bit of a slight.  An influencer isn’t necessarily a creator. She’s a person who uses new media to compel her following to make a particular choice — a consumer choice.  The influencer has something to push, and her illustrative talents are applied to marketing, framing, and contextualization rather than self-expression or innovation.  Artists, especially in a place as willful as New Jersey, don’t like to think of themselves as engaged in advertising or self-promotion. They’re visionaries, not hucksters.

Still, you’d have to hunt pretty hard to find an artists working in any medium who wouldn’t like to make a sale.  Even the most self-effacing among us is going to be appreciative of those who help them do that. Our local curators may not hang out on social media all day (thank goodness), but they do many of the same things that online influencers do: they call attention to interesting things, and try to convince the uncommitted to make an investment measurable in time, or money, or both. “Figures From the Field: Influencers,” now on view at Firmament Gallery (329 Warren Street) and presented in coordination with the Bridge Gallery in Bayonne, doesn’t use the “i” word as an aspersion. It’s unironically applied to figures of consequence in Jersey City art — four curators and organizers whose efforts on behalf of the scene has led to prestige and material gain for its participants.

The show features work by Jim Pustorino and Anne Trauben, the curators at Drawing Rooms (926 Newark Avenue), one of the town’s most respected galleries.  Pustorino, a painter, presents two large abstract canvases, bright and busy with streaks of color that twist and curve from corner to corner like a tangle of waterslides. Trauben makes winsome portraits of miniature creatures, including a statesmanlike giraffe, out of pieces of paper she’s inked and assembled. Her collages hang on the western wall of the Gallery alongside crisp, rhythmic linocut prints by Kristin DeAngelis, the director of community outreach at MANA Contemporary (888 Newark Avenue).  DeAngelis, who ran the 107 Bowers Gallery in the Heights and has also curated at Art Fair 14C, has likened herself to a roadie toiling on behalf of the rock stars of the scene. At Firmament, the roadie steps into the spotlight, and may even hint at a secret desire to take a solo.

Donna Kessinger

It’s unlikely she’d ever ham it up like that. We appreciate a good show here, but the Hudson County way is not showy. DeAngelis’s humility is typical of an understated scene in which promotion is seen as a necessary evil rather than a spectator sport. Despite her self-effacement, DeAngelis has become one of the most recognizable figures on the local gallery circuit, and Pustorino and Trauben have made strong positive reputations for themselves, too. It is impossible to engage with art in Hudson County without encountering their projects or bumping into them outright. They may not be pushy or flamboyant about it, but they’re impresarios nonetheless. 

Thus, it isn’t misleading for Bridge Gallery and Firmament to call these three influencers. But like all corporate neologisms, the term implies more than it delivers. Technically speaking, directing the attention and the dollars of visitors toward an art show is indeed an act of creative persuasion. It is not, however, what artists, and art lovers, mean when they talk about influence. Influential work has a measurable effect on the style and substance of pieces made in its wake. It generates a force that tugs at the paintbrush in the hand of the artist who follows. Influence is a mediation between the present and the future — a conversation between creators recorded on canvas, in plaster, and in ink. It’s not at all clear that that conversation is happening here. The same introversion and radical independence that gives Hudson County art so much of its character, and its integrity, also has a tendency to inhibit influence. 

Efforts have been made to work against this tendency.  Usually, they’ve involved gathering artists in close quarters, pressing them together in the hope that sheer proximity will get them talking.  That was the original logic behind the Powerhouse Arts District: concentration of artists in a small part of town might create a “critical mass,” as if creators were overheated protons, and a stuffed nucleus might give off pulses of radiation. That’s also a good way to create fissile material, especially in a place as fractious as this.  

Ben Fine

Nevertheless, we keep trying. MANA Contemporary, for instance, introduced itself as an arts community and turbine for creative collisions. It’s unclear how much crosstalk is happening behind those big, slab-like studio doors, though. Donna Kessinger, the deputy director of 14C and the fourth participant in the “Influencers” show, starred in a celebrated solo exhibition at MANA in August 2022. “It’s Not the End of the World… Yet” presented Kessinger as an artist with a clear personal vision and methods of expression that allowed her to bring her ideas to her canvases with assurance.

She’s only contributed one prominent piece to the Firmament show, but it’s a doozy.  “Push Pull,” a nine-panel painting, is a repository of Kessinger’s benevolent wizardry — a play of hue, shape, texture, and tricks designed to delight and perturb the eye.  She’s poked hundreds of holes in lines in her canvases, stained them red, and gotten the apertures to mess with the viewer’s perception of color and shape. On top of that, she’s varied the thickness of the canvases, creating subtle destabilization and drawing the audience closer. It can be appreciated for the intrigue it generates, but it also be understood as a theoretical piece about penetration, and how deep into a work of art it’s possible to get. 

Because of her importance to the scene and her evident talent, Kessinger is exactly the sort of creator with the capacity to exert influence over other artists. MANA was designed to be an art laboratory; if it truly is one, we’d expect to see a response to Kessinger’s pieces. That doesn’t mean artists imitating the things she does. That’d be mimicry, not influence.  Influence means attunement to the ideas that Kessinger is presenting through the things she’s created.  Beyond the formal features of her paintings, there are discernible queer and feminist implications to Kessinger’s approach. There’s a lot in her work for a receptive artist to be influenced by. If she’s to be influential, rather than merely an influencer, other artists have to hear her call and answer back.

Jim Pustorino

What I’m describing is a pretty rare thing, but it does happen; indeed, it must happen for a scene to truly catch fire. As impervious as New Jersey can seem to influence, sparks are visible around town.  One of the appealing features of Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison Avenue) is that the gang of artists who show there truly seem to be listening to each other.  The principals behind Deep Space are proud of the sense of community they’ve fostered, and lately, they’ve begun exporting it.  Wandering Lights is a collaboration between the Deep Space curators and Shamona Stokes, a painter and sculptor who doubles as the director of Elevator (135 Erie Street), another arts incubator. In the Jersey City manner, Elevator aims for camaraderie via concentration, and the charismatic Stokes is as good a bet as anybody to get the dialogue rolling. She could probably have been an influencer if she’d wanted to be; instead, and to her credit, she’d like to have influence.

Wandering Lights has assumed a tough responsibility that once belonged to Kristin DeAngelis: they’re curating shows in the two Downtown residential common areas in condominium complexes developed by Silverman Building. DeAngelis regularly fitted strong art shows in rooms that were not outfitted to be art galleries.  She located pieces that simultaneously soothed the frazzled nerves of commuters and accelerated the heartbeats of art appreciators. “Colorology,” the first Wandering Lights show at Hamilton Square Condominiums (232 Pavonia Avenue), isn’t quite so perfectly balanced, but it suggests that the new bosses are on the right track.  

“Colorology” leans heavily on the work of another Jersey City artist who could reasonably be called an influencer: Bryant Small, co-President of ProArts and curator of many strong shows, including Danielle Scott’s powerhouse exhibition at Gallery Aferro in Newark.  Small might not even mind the designation. His paintings in alcohol ink exude agreeability, placidity, and friendliness and shine like stained glass in a church. Some of his atrium-sized pieces on display at Hamilton Square are more turbulent than his usual paintings, especially the enveloping “Faithful,” which is scored by clutches of black rays. Others are, as he puts it himself, “All Heart No Bite,” nebulas of intermingling color and assured works of harmony.

The other dominant figure in “Colorology” is a Deep Space favorite: George Goodridge, who is part painter, part sculptor, part carpenter, and part None of the Above. Goodridge applies dots and loops of acrylic to canvases that he stretches into curved shapes on wooden frames. They then hover over group shows like thought bubbles. “Colorology” includes three of Goodridge’s framed pieces, and these, too, are engrossing, even if they feel a little like the product of running one of his three-dimensional works through one of those fairground machines that stretches and flattens pennies. But it’s “Thought Forms,” his pillowy protrusion that greets visitors as they walk in the front door of Hamilton Square Condominiums, that best represents his work. He’s served us a tasty marshmallow of green and purple paint on a raised white background; it’s tidy, welcoming, and thoroughly pleasant.

Surrounded by spikier pieces at Deep Space, Goodridge’s interrogatory work felt probing and provocative. At “Colorology,” it still does — but it’s a little unsettling to notice how well it assimilates to a neutral residential-commercial environment.  Macauley Norman, another Deep Space artist, isn’t quite so friction-free on oil painting “New Home What a Mess,” but compared to the work he’s shown on Cornelison Street, he’s certainly playing nice. Other local artists have spiffed up and put on their Sunday best for this show, including Sarah Grace, who contributes three poised exercises in acrylic, Sarah Fairchild, who greets visitors with a clutch of gold foil flowers on a long and pretty panel of silk and velvet, Jenn Martinez, who wraps viewers in a mesh of string and hair, and Stephen Wuensch, creator of “To Elsie,” a giant, vivacious oil painting in chrysanthemum pink.

Then there’s Ben Fine, whose excellent mixed-media assemblage combine washes of bright yellow paint with torn strips of paper marked by occluded text. In execution and feel, and in its peculiar mystery, it’s not dissimilar to the work of the outstanding Heather Williams, whose own pieces hung at Hamilton Square for most of the fall of 2022. Maybe it’s coincidence. But maybe — just maybe — it’s influence.

Featured work by George Goodridge

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,...