On the lacquered floor of the gigantic Jersey City Armory (678 Montgomery St.), scores of participants set up for a crowd of spectators. But despite the overhead scoreboard, wooden bleachers, and anticipation in the air, this is no sporting event. Instead, painters, sculptors, photographers, multi-media dreamers, and creators of unclassifiable what-is-its — most from the Garden State — have gathered for a four-day fine arts blowout dedicated to creativity, ingenuity, and camaraderie. Almost a year since its last visitation, the Art Fair 14C is back in town. New Jersey’s largest visual arts event has taken over one of Hudson County’s biggest buildings.

14C has gone from humble digs to sports arenas faster than Taylor Swift did. In four short years, the Fair has established itself as a flagship cultural event for the visual arts in New Jersey. It has become the quickest way for an initiate in the scene (or a buyer) to learn the players, the styles, and the movements that make the Garden State, and Jersey City in particular, such fertile territory for artistic expression. Last year, the Fair scored a coup by setting up in the mammoth Glass Gallery at MANA Contemporary. That felt like an ambitious move for an upstart cultural event, but it worked spectacularly well. With MANA undergoing renovation, Art Fair 14C could have retrenched. Instead, they’ve gotten larger, busier, and more comprehensive. These organizers only know one direction: up.

Art Fair 14C has, once again, justified its expansion with a show that manages to draw surprising, illuminating connections between talented contributors. 

Bigger is not always better. That’s especially true in visual art, where the maintenance of human size and scale is essential to emotional communication. Yet Art Fair 14C has, once again, justified its expansion with a show that manages to draw surprising, illuminating connections between talented contributors. It’s a space of mingled visions, presented on a grand scale by directors and planners who know this territory well. This year, the roster of organizers includes deputy director Donna Kessinger, who is herself an accomplished abstract painter, and artist liaisons Kristine Go of the MK Apothecary Gallery in Collinsgwood and Michelle “Woolpunk” Vitale, curator at the Dineen Hull Gallery at Hudson County Community College

But the main driver of Art Fair 14C — the leader of a vanguard that has always, quite pointedly, consisted entirely of women — remains its founder and executive director. Robinson Holloway came up with this concept in 2018, and it still has her imprimatur on it. Many of the hallmarks of the shows she’s curated in her own Village West Gallery are visible at 14C: grace, restraint, temperance, beauty and balance, engagement with history, expressions of anxiety about the pace of modernity and the prevalence and needlessness of waste. The Art Fair 14C at Glass Gallery was full of jittery, engrossing, subtly unnerving depictions of the Garden State on a knife-edge, subjected to political and environmental stresses and filled with interpersonal and literal toxicity. The Armory version of the Fair accelerates that disquiet.

Some of the work at the sprawling Armory site is jovial and blithe, and takes viewers on a purely visceral ride. Other pieces are merely decorative, and a few speak more to the eye than they do to the mind. But the prevailing tone of 14C is, in the words of contributor Donna Bassin (booth S2) of Maplewood, one of “environmental melancholia”: a hovering sense that we’ve become estranged from the natural world. 

This is a thoughtful event, and what many of these artists are thinking about is their own discomfort on a planet spinning all too quickly. This pensive quality is expressed through stark, depopulated landscapes and seascapes, renderings of built structures encroached upon by powerful natural forces, and many striking, soulful pictures of animals. 

This year’s Art Fair 14C boasts an entire “cat wall” filled with images of felines, including Paul Leibow’s fragmented, imperiled, and sexualized interpretations of the vintage character Felix, and photographer’s Dorie Dahlberg’s ruminative tabby, staring out a living room window onto a great blank beyond. Cheryl Agulnick Hochberg (C2) of Boonton brings a menagerie of the winsome and endangered to life in her sharp, probing woodcuts; illustrator Cheryl Gross (A7), recently relocated to MANA, juxtaposes her forthright drawings of animals with others of combative young women; oil painter Sarah Beckdel (C9) of Brigantine gives us white stag straddling the yellow line of a highway, trapped in the unmerciful headlights of the viewer’s gaze. DISTORT, one of Jersey City’s signature muralists, comes inside for a depiction in oil on sheet metal of another deer, wading in a coal-black stream, in the shadow of a range of washing machines and an all-seeing CRT television.

The tonal consistency and evident thematic through-lines of the Fair make this a much more approachable event than a sprawling exhibition held in a space the size of an airplane hangar has any business being. It also makes it far more legible and less intimidating than comparable Fairs on the other side of the Hudson. Even when its participants get experimental, it speaks of familiar anxieties in a familiar language. Though organizers stress that 14C is an international event with contributors from Brazil, Greece, Australia, and other lands far from Route 1&9 and the Colgate clock, the lion’s share of the artists come to the Armory from elsewhere in the Garden State.

That means the scenes they depict — even at their most abstract — ought to be recognizable to locals. Jersey City painter Allan Gorman (C23) shows us weathered tenements, shadows from the steel girders of old bridges, and architecture reflected and warped by the glass surfaces of impassive office towers. The elements are even more threatening in the neatly composed photographs of Ira Wagner (S12) of Montclair. In one, a plywood house elevated upon rickety crates attempts to dodge floodwaters. It looks as if one wave might send the whole thing crashing to the sandy soil. Everywhere, vegetation fights back, climbing the walls of a venerable apartment building in Wagner’s “Alida Hall,” bursting like green flame from the bowels of a skeletal boat beached in the woods and painted by the Jersey City visual storyteller Peter Delman (B5), and leading the eye into dense and wintry woods in dazzling printed photos by the peerless Edward Fausty (B16) of Boonton.    

Sometimes the materials themselves look menacing, and maybe even dangerous to work with. Mosaicist Monique Sarfity (B12) fashions a glittering George Washington Bridge from re-purposed fragments of glass. Others are fragile enough to crumple, like the bone-white paper dollhouses that pop up like mushrooms from grey platforms in the booth of Upper Saddle River’s Pam Cooper (A26). Man-made structures perturb the idyllic countryside: the flatbed of a pickup truck nags at the bottom corner of a sun-goldened rolling pasture in “Cows and Crows” by Karl Hartman (A27), and a great grey asphalt parking lot crowds the shore in an unnervingly precise painting by Jersey City’s Paula S. Brudnicki (B14). 

All this turbulence culminates in the Fair’s splashiest, most arresting booth — and the mini-exhibition that will probably be remembered as Art Fair 14C’s dark heart. The underrated Jersey City painter Thomas John Carlson (S41) has smothered his makeshift walls with stomach-churning images of buildings on fire, including a surreal, deeply destabilizing dramatization of the blaze that scorched the domes of City Hall in 1979. On the Grove Street sidewalk, an array of business-attired functionaries, some bewildered, some concerned, some downright creepy, take refuge from the flames. He’s surrounded this local cataclysm with other historical disasters, including an oil painting on linen of Julius Caesar’s accidental torching of the library at Alexandria. All that is vanity goes up in smoke; knowledge, wisdom, and institutional authority are all jeopardized by misgovernment. 

The show of new works is a reminder that Carlson, who directs at Jersey City Art School on 3rd Street, is a fascinating painter. His canvases can evoke the bracing primitivism of early American folk art, the sweep of the Hudson River School, and the slice-of-life urban tale-spinning of Edward Hopper; sometimes he mixes all of that up into a personal style of great immediacy, vigor, and strategic crudeness. The Essex County painter Michael Michael Motorcycle (C30) is up to something similarly bracing, and he, too, is drawn, bug-like, to flames, including big, scary oils of forest fires and incinerated truck cabins.   

Though the implications of these works are plain, Art Fair 14C is rarely polemical. Few of these artists take the blunt approach of Montclair fiber artist Rachel Kanter (S13), who slices the shapes of states that have impinged on reproductive rights out of a rough-sewn American flag. Most of her Fair peers prefer to remain ambiguous and let the mood do the talking. In the spooky “Nostalgia of Sought Peace,” Rachael Bailey (S48) presents two empty sofa chairs in a living room decorated with white drapes and hanging plants. These images are painted on to mylar and superimposed over patterned wallpaper: a relic that speaks of things unrecoverable. Who sat here, and where are they now? Bailey doesn’t say. Instead, she lets a chill wind blow through the scene. She’s poised, suggestive, ambivalent; like many of us, she seems to be mourning something. It’s another pained contribution to a powerful, articulate Art Fair 14C — a Garden State arts institution that, despite the accomplishment and dedication of all involved, could not have taken root and flourished anywhere else. 

trismccall@gmail.com

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,...