"Changing Course" by Susan Evans Grove
"Changing Course" by Susan Evans Grove

My favorite artifact of the pandemic era is currently on view in the Powerhouse Arts District.  Brian Gustafson‘s glass umbrella rests on a platform at Novado Gallery (110 Morgan St.), promising a cold, rigid sort of protection from a storm that will not relent. In a testament in metal to the swirling winds of the tempest, the handle and spine of the umbrella are twisted like wrought iron on a city gate. Whoever held this umbrella in the gale might have corkscrewed straight into the ground. The glass is thick and firm and suggests thawing ice, and the spike at the top of the umbrella looks sharp enough for Kaiser Wilhelm, or for the business end of the vaccinator’s syringe. Gustafson’s sculpture is luminous, but it has real heft to it, too. If you were to bear it in a breeze, you would feel like the steward of a beautiful burden.

I initially encountered this piece (or one quite like it; Gustafson is a prolific sculptor) at the headquarters and art laboratory of the Eileen S. Kaminsky Foundation at MANA Contemporary (888 Newark). At the Kaminsky Winter Residency Reception, Gustafson surrounded his brolly with fragments of shattered glass. Here was the savage hailstorm we’ve endured; here, too, was our fragile shield. Illumination fell on the sculpture in a torrent, and the umbrella threw curved shadows on the walls of the workspace. In the Kaminsky gallery, it looked good. In Anne Novado‘s brick-walled art space, where it interacts with the textured paintings of the gallerist herself, it looks even better.

The Powerhouse Arts District was designed to engender juxtapositions like this. The original drafters of the Ordinance, which passed the City Council all the way back in 2004, hoped to generate a critical mass of creators and encourage visual conversations between local artists. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Artists have always lived in the District, and many more have worked there, but the high price of real estate has made it difficult for an independent operator to open a gallery.  For many years, there was simply no suitable place in the PAD to show work. That’s changing. A few developers have honored their commitment to provide accessible art space. Some of the slack has been picked up by local businesses. The Powerhouse branch of the CoolVines chain of liquor stores (350 Warren St.) operates an Art Wall: a nook in the back of the shop where patrons can sit and contemplate pieces mounted on a small interior surface. The CoolVines is in the same giant historic building that houses Novado Gallery and the Modera Lofts, and if you know how and the doors are open, it’s possible to get from the Wall to Novado without ever going out to Morgan Street.

Although the Art Wall feels like a modest intervention in a serious problem, the pieces on view there have been very good. Since the Art Wall is open whenever the store is, and the store doubles as a little grocery for the neighborhood, it’s become one of the town’s most accessible art spaces. “This Time Round,” the latest show, features work by local dream-architect Lucy Rovetto, whose distressed figures always seem to be emerging from the mist or flickering out of being. In a series appropriate to a building that also contains a cafe, she’s presenting circular figures on cotton made from a combination of acrylic and coffee grounds. She’s complemented these sepia-toned hallucinations with images of bodies in trouble: acrobats suspended in space, pictures of skinned knees on recycled paper, toy soldiers backlit so dramatically that they look like real doughboys caught in the fog of war.

“This Time Round” feels like a small-scale extension of “Floating,” Rovetto’s March 2021 show at 150 Bay St., a mere two block walk from the Art Wall.  The main gallery at 150 Bay is located on the second floor of the building, but lately, ProArts has also been making good use of the ground floor lobby on the corner of cobblestoned Provost St. With its high ceilings and glass windows (not to mention the presence of the building elevators) the corner seems to call for verticality. ProArts has bucked that expectation this month with a small but potent exhibition of works by two poets of the horizontal. Neither Teri Fiore nor Susan Evans Grove are landscape artists in the strict mimetic sense, but their beautiful, stormy, emotionally provocative pieces suggest wide open spaces. Fiore’s bands of gold and silver resin leaf, gleaming under a coat of resin, assume the characteristic starkness of the shore in early spring. Grove’s photographic lens captures details from the pulverized hulls of weathered ships.  Close up and stripped of context, the scrapes and dents become electrifying cityscapes; understood for what they are, they’re a commentary on the fragility of the man-made amidst the immense forces of nature.

The Powerhouse Arts District has been inchoate for such a long time that it’s sometimes tough to remember that it was a city initiative.  Greg Brickey, the able curator of the Gallery at the Meagher Rotunda at City Hall (280 Grove), was once one of the advocates who dreamed of a district devoted to the arts, and while the space he now oversees is located a few blocks to the west, he draws, often, from the same pool of local talent that has recently been helping the PAD live up to its name. “Speak to the Moment,” the latest Rotunda show, features work from four regional stars, including Cheryl Hochberg, whose crisp paintings of animals, sometimes in strange settings, are both photorealistic and otherworldly.  But the centerpiece of the show — literally! — is a meditative installation by the artist-environmentalist Amanda Thackray.  The Newark-based sculptor dangles blue paper nets in the shape of raindrops from cables strung across the top of the circular aperture in the middle of the rotunda. The result: a mobile sculpture that simulates the revelatory delight of a sudden spring downpour. Just the thing to make a person call for a glass umbrella.

Featured image: “Changing Course” by Susan Evans Grove

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Tris McCall

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,...