What makes for of a great local art exhibition? Worthwhile works of art, of course: That’s a given. But that’s not all that’s necessary. A really good local show ought to be a match between the pieces on display, the gallery space, and the neighborhood in which the gallery is located. When you exit the art space and return to the street, the show shouldn’t stop. It should keep right on speaking to you about everything you see. Although a good local show will probably have prices on the pieces, it should never feel like a market, and the artists represented should not be attempting to use the show as a springboard to the monoculture or the art world (whatever that is). They should be idiosyncratic, and self-possessed, and more than a little stubborn about that. The show should put the visitors in contact with the definite, specific, ungovernable personalities of the artists. Ideally, those artists should live in the neighborhood where the gallery is located—and they should have plenty to say about their region.
Marta Blair isn’t a Jersey City resident. She’s from Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. Her studio is as far from the Colgate clock as it would be if she worked in Montclair. But Inwood would be instantly familiar to anybody who has spent time in Hudson County. Tower blocks and rows of medium-density housing, vast brick buildings, hulking public works facilities, bridges, and big black rivers on the periphery of the area: All of it feels like home. So, it’s no great coincidence that Blair works in a style similar to that of the post-industrial artists who’ve made some of the liveliest and most distinctive work to be shown in Jersey City in the past thirty years. Her show at the SMUSH Gallery (340 Summit Ave.), which opens at 6 p.m. tonight and runs until February 15, is honorary Jersey.
It’s also terrific, proof positive that small local shows can provide some of the biggest electric shocks. “Heart Echoes: Paintings by Marta Blair” is intimate, varied, and engrossing, and all of the pieces in the exhibition feel like expressions of the same personal vision. Blair’s work is rarely aggressive, but it can be forceful nonetheless. Some credit for the coherence of this show must go to SMUSH curator Katelyn Halpern, whose arrangement of the paintings takes advantage of the gallery’s coziness, and its rawness, too. She’s hung the imposing multi-panel “Red Painting 2” just below a large air duct in the ceiling as if to suggest that the large painting is also a kind of conduit. A long, thick ribbon of a painting is displayed in the front window much as a downtown clothier might show off a scarf.
But none of these clever gestures would work if Blair’s work didn’t sing in such clear, rough, sincere notes. Like many who work in this style, Blair incorporates urban detritus into her art—burlap, string, wooden slats, gauze, cotton mesh, rivets—but few bring out the beauty and dignity of these materials with such unerring grace. She has a knack for enhancing the expressive potential of the humble objects she uses and transforms. To see “Heart Echoes” is, for a few moments at least, to inhabit Blair’s sensibility: The rhythms of the threads of industrial textiles, the subtle topography of paper, the mutable quality of cords, the joy of the small and functional all become palpable to the viewer. Her sense of awareness is contagious. The longer you look at these pieces, the wider your eyes will grow.
The materials that Blair uses aren’t hidden, but they aren’t oversold, either. They’re simply there to support the images, most of which are broadly abstract but hint at figuration. As you might expect from an artist whose work rests on keen observation, she takes her images to the very brink of the paper and sometimes beyond. At least one of her large wall hangings is fully illustrated on both sides; SMUSH will show you the back of it if you’re interested. There are few straight lines in Blair’s work. Instead, her pieces are filled with fields of bright acrylic color, large arcs, hooks, and intersecting crescents, occasional splashes, rivulets, and drippings and in one arresting piece a series of wormholes cut into the paper. Some of these designs threaten to coalesce into images of faces, or skulls, or human or celestial bodies, or hearts. But there’s so much motion in these paintings that nothing holds together for long.
Given the density of ideas, it’s a testament to Blair’s sense of balance and mastery of color that her work never feels busy. It can, however, be more than a little destabilizing, especially before your eyes have acclimated themselves to the artist’s vision. The big pieces in “Heart Echoes” are both beautiful and immersive, but the best and most approachable pieces in the exhibition are the artist’s six-inch-square wood panels. This is Marta Blair by the slice rather than by the whole pie, and they maintain the intensity of the wall hangings even as they’re possible to apprehend at a glance. SMUSH has arranged them in grids and strips reminiscent of the presentation of Lygia Pape’s “books” of forms: a tentative, hopeful imposition of geometric order on forces not easily tamed. The wood panels, which Blair simply calls “Small Works” (she clearly doesn’t like titling her paintings) crackle with energy. Some suggest alien landscapes while others seem to represent eyes or tilted heads. All are opportunities for Blair to show off her distinctive and pleasing palette: sea blues, grassy greens, Valentine pinks that thickens into rich reds. My favorite contains a furious gold squiggle in an upper corner. It’s an errant brain wave, a shock of lightning, a jump rope seized and jostled.
“Heart Echoes” is Marta Blair’s first solo exhibition. Talented and dedicated as she is, she’s no innate careerist. Her works are inscribed in a private visual language; because she’s fundamentally generous and communicative, that language is legible to viewers who are willing to meet her halfway. But she clearly doesn’t paint to please the crowd. She’s got her own heartbeat and her own singular aesthetic objectives. She’s exactly the sort of painter who local galleries should be championing. SMUSH recognized that, and in so doing Jersey City has been rewarded with its first can’t-miss art show of 2020.
Header: “Red Painting 2” by Marta Blair