During the height of the lockdown period, it was sometimes hard to find a human being on the Jersey City streets.  There weren’t too many in works of art, either. Many of the impressive shows held in the wake of the pandemic portrayed radically depopulated places: empty corners, abandoned buildings, rock clubs minus the rockers, modern architecture as desolate as Grecian ruins.  One of last year’s best shows starred an ancient feature of the built environment that has, slowly but surely, been returning to a prelapsarian state.  Even good-natured exhibitions had a post-apocalyptic aura. Our local artists worried that the human race was run.  

Hecate Goddess of the Moon by Beth DiCara

No longer.  People began to creep back into the frames in late 2022, and they’ve lingered about ever since. Tonight’s Jersey City Fridays event is practically a hopping party — on canvases, anyway.  After a tortured period of exile, the human figure has re-emerged from its hiding place.  At the Art House Gallery (345 Marin Boulevard), Andrea McKenna is staging her latest confrontation with grief, beauty, and the impermanence of life in a show curated by the hallucinatory portraitist Lucy Rovetto. A few blocks to the east, a group of Jersey luminaries has hung a series of “slow selfies” — i.e., old-fashioned self-portraits — on the walls of the Novado Gallery (110 Morgan Street). Even Guillermo Bublik’s brilliant colored ink shapes have lately taken on an anthropomorphic vibe.  He’s set them dancing at “Las Callecitas de Buenos Aires” at 157A 1st St.

Queen Bee by Doris Caciolo

These human figures aren’t all vexed.  Nevertheless, they all show signs of trauma, and, in some cases, metamorphosis.  The Jersey City Fridays shows don’t just represent a return of the human.  They’re also a reintroduction of the body — and bodies, as we’ve all learned, are treacherous places.  Bodies are battlegrounds.  At the remarkable “IS/IS NOT” trio exhibition at Eonta Space (34 Dekalb Avenue), arresting work by HAMEWS radiates the cheery desperation of the patient who has learned more about the body than she ever planned to. Her sculptural subjects have sloughed off their skin, leaving behind elaborately decorated skeletons, including a mammoth pair of rigid legs that stretches from the floor to the ceiling. Instead of a pelvis, it spills a verdant basket of plant life toward the viewer. (In another gesture of friendliness and fecundity, it’s got wide-open sunflowers for knee pads.)  Another skeleton squats in the corner with an array of golden tassels where its head should be, piano keys for fingers and toes, and wadded-up sheet music for a heart.


These HAMEWS creatures aren’t monsters; not exactly, anyway.  They’re celebrations of that which keeps us standing up steady, even as they acknowledge the deep weirdness of bones and guts. If they’re also a little scary, well, what investigation into the inner workings of the body isn’t?  That same disquiet animates much of the rest of this excellent show, including Michelle Mayer’s vicious miniature square paintings, done in classical Subcontinental style, of wild animals tearing at the bodies of British soldiers. In one, an Indian deity dances on a greensward as a pair of bright-eyed hyenas divest a redcoat of his head. This is a fierce anticolonial statement, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the weakness of the flesh, and its constant susceptibility to wild and untamable forces.  

Michelle Mayer @ EONTA Space

That shiver of trouble continues at “Venus Was Her Name,” a playful, mesmerizing, quietly subversive show at Evening Star Studios (11 Monitor Street), the Bergen-Lafayette gallery that has become the go-to room for those who love adventurous ceramics. A team of seven artists approach the goddess with a combination of awe, mischief, and primeval wonder that might reasonably be called Willendorfian.  


That deep and worshipful love is apparent in the work of gallerist Beth DiCara, whose curved and gentle-breasted torsos of women are elevated by marks of care — finger-marks smoothing the clay, gleaming raku finishes that impart a copper shimmer to her subject’s bellies. Stacy As Pritchard contributes a figurine of a crouching woman with one foot on a green tuffet and a spray of flowers bursting from a cracked head. Twist a peg in the back, and this delicate wind-up doll shudders to life. Mystery hangs heavily over the blank, spoonlike faces of ceramic provocateur Doris Cacoilo’s statuettes and Sydney Yavelle’s headless bust with smears of earth-brown paint leading down to a pert bellybutton.  Best and scariest is Heather Williams’s “Witness,” a red face sundered in two uneven pieces. Each fraction propped up on narrow black rods so that the left eye stares out near the corner of its neighbor’s mouth. Over the past decade, we’ve all seen plenty. But if you can put yourself back together after you’ve been stretched, and shattered, and violently transformed, there’s an awfully good chance that you’ve got a story to tell.


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,...