Plagues change the way we see the city. An otherwise innocuous scene of a crowded street suddenly looks suspicious. Bars and restaurants become hotspots. Residential towers begin to assume the character of fortresses. Because Jersey City felt the sting of the pandemic before other places did — before there was even a decent transmission model or treatment options for the virus — we locked down harder than many of our fellow Americans. It was the responsible thing to do, but we’re likely to suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms for a long time.
Yet our shared experience of trauma has also given us a common understanding. No Hudson County person could look at Ben Fine’s recent work and miss the context. Fine’s images of a depopulated city, captured from an apartment window, colorful, inviting, yet inaccessible, currently hang on the wainscoted walls of the first floor gathering space of the Majestic Condominiums (222 Montgomery). “Coming into Focus,” a two-artist show that pairs Fine prints with recent paintings by Deb Sinha, isn’t a parochial exhibition: it contains streetscapes of Paris and Recifé, Brazil alongside more familiar images of Jersey City. Nevertheless, it’s likely to be remembered by those who see it as the definitive Jersey City pandemic-era art show — one so tonally and emotionally accurate that it deserves to be called history.
Much of the credit for that goes to curator Kristin DeAngelis of Art Fair 14C, who has gotten so comfortable in the Majestic space that it’s starting to feel like her living room. DeAngelis alternates between Fine’s crisp, bright, specific daytime images, some with actual dates affixed, and Sinha’s portraits of the muted, eternal urban night. The effect is something like a pictorial calendar — the restless, relentless, interchangeable days of an invisible cataclysm, snapshots strung like lantern lights, windows opening on our collective memory.
The two artists work differently. Fine, stuck in his apartment during the lockdown, made aggressively vibrant digital paintings on his iPad of the world outside his door; he’s printed them in archival ink and he’s presenting most of them in twenty-inch frames as square as vinyl album covers. Fine’s squares defy the horizontal, rectangular norms of landscape and streetscape convention, and add to the feeling of involuntary confinement that his pandemic paintings radiate.
Deb Sinha, by contrast, paints in oil, and his works often do stretch out laterally. Vertically, too: “Abstract I,” chilly as a Whistler nocturne, captures a series of colored globes at the far end of a wet street, all under a midnight blue sky. As in many of his paintings, lights testify to human activity, but there’s no one on the road. Some of his other canvases will be easier for locals to pinpoint: the Kitchen Step on Jersey in a misty twilight, the Statue Of Liberty, small and frail under a heavy grey expanse, and the Dixon Deli, with its deserted corner illuminated by so many globes of light, it’s practically pointillist. In the gorgeous “Street Lamp,” Sinha gives us an orb that’s at once familiar and as strange as an arriving U.F.O.
What unites Fine and Sinha is the sense of curious stillness that radiates from their streetscapes, and the sense of an urban world in unwanted repose. Both artists present a city that’s beautiful, but also untouchable, frozen at a moment when authorities were quite literally telling us to keep our hands to ourselves. For months in quarantine, the city we saw through the glass was impossibly alluring, and also completely off-limits. Without moving an inch, we’d all become exiles in our own hometown. Ben Fine and Deb Sinha are the reporters who’ve gotten this grim story right, and if you have it in you to relive those strange days, this show will be on view at the Majestic through the end of June.
Curator Kristin DeAngelis will lead a tour of “Coming Into Focus” at the Majestic Condominiums (222 Montgomery St. between Grove and Barrow) at 3:30 p.m. today.