Jim Fischer loves snow. Pictures of it at least; the Jersey City artist may not appreciate shoveling it, but he’s a sure hand at depicting it. Snow swirls through the pleasantly proletarian “Forty-Eight Views of Brownstone Brooklyn” — a show that is exactly what it sounds like it would be. It lays heavily on the tangled branches of bare trees in Prospect Park, stuffs the air above the Boathouse with white dots, tickles a wet corner of Bergen St., and dolefully probes the spaces between the fire escapes in the alley behind Guido’s Funeral Home in Carroll Gardens. In Fischer’s engrossing drawings in colored pencil, the elements are a beautiful adornment. They never molest the built environment. They only make it more appealing. Even a slash of lightning in the sky over the Acanthus Gate only serves to enhance the hominess of the illustration. This version of Brooklyn crackles with electricity. It’s fully operational, workable, comprehensible, a place built for action.
That battery power was supplied the by pre-war architects who decorated these neighborhoods with passion and care. Fischer’s “Brownstone Brooklyn,” which will be on view at Casa Colombo (380 Monmouth St.) until Jan. 31, is an urbanist’s dream. Ordinary residential buildings in Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill are decked out with friezes and cornices; civic structures are balanced and beautified, and even the iron undersides of bridges seem to have been graced by an artist’s touch. Fischer depicts the monuments of Prospect Park with the requisite grandeur, but he always includes images of people alongside the pomp to be sure that everything has the appropriate human scale. If Brooklyn wasn’t right there on the other side of the Hudson River, we might think that he was exaggerating.
But he’s not exaggerating — he’s merely excising. He’s showing us the parts of Brooklyn that truly are beautiful, and that have attained a classic architectural status, and leaving out some of the bigger monstrosities that have marred the borough’s skyline over the past few decades. In case you’re inclined to check his work, he’s affixed a map of Brooklyn to the wall of Casa Colombo and starred it with the actual locations of the scenes he’s depicting in colored pencil and paint. Chances are, you won’t need to. If you’ve had any exposure to the brownstone neighborhoods of Brooklyn, you’ll recognize the corners he’s sketched.
A cynic, or a real estate agent, might note that the price of one of those brownstones in Fischer’s Brooklyn is many millions of dollars. This is a high-rent district the artist is showing us — a walkable, convivial, vegetable market-filled paradise for those who, in Woody Guthrie’s phrase, have the do-re-mi. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the artist was sharpening up a selling point. Yet regardless of the subject matter, “Forty-Eight Views of Brownstone Brooklyn” is the most accessible art show you’ll see in Jersey City all year. Fischer is giving away paper prints of his images for free. Framed reproductions sell for ten dollars apiece. Even the winsome originals won’t set you back more than a couple hundred bucks. These addresses are posh. Collectors at Casa Colombo don’t need to be.
By keeping things egalitarian, Jim Fischer is aligning himself with his inspiration for the show: Katsushika Hokusai, whose “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” series of reproducible woodblock prints preserved a vision of Edo period Japan for popular audiences. Hokusai’s radical innovations were not without attitude. They were a challenge to the institutional hierarchy that dominated Japanese art. Hokusai’s impudence appeals to Fischer, no doubt. His work is enlivened by an undercurrent of provocation. Even the prettiest and most placid prints in “Brownstone Brooklyn” prompt self-interrogation. Why, the show asks, don’t we build like this anymore? Why is new urban construction bereft of detail, intrigue, and a sense of play?
An easy answer is that the visual hallmarks of Brownstone Brooklyn have become indicative of class and privilege, and builders looking to embrace an economically diverse group of renters and buyers opt instead for something neutral. But Brooklyn, Fischer’s show reminds us, has retained its value because of its legibility, and the care with which those planners and architects approached the streetscapes. People love neighborhoods that love them back. Decoration in wood and stone is an investment in the future, and bets made in Brooklyn a century ago continue to pay off for modern residents. Developers mess with the vibe of Brownstone Brooklyn to their peril, and to the detriment of everybody living there.
Similar concerns haunt “With Love From Project Greenville,” an uneven but intriguing group show that’ll hang in the second floor gallery at ART150 (150 Bay Street) until Jan. 28. Greenville is the Jersey City neighborhood with the least resemblance to Brownstone Brooklyn — it’s ill-served by public transit, it’s not particularly friendly to pedestrians, and it suffers from a paucity of civic structures and greenspace. Many of its blocks are defiantly unpretty. Yet it’s home to many artists, and Project Greenville has demonstrated a heroic commitment to directing attention toward them. The takeover of ART150 brings some of those voices to the heart of the warehouse district, where they sing harmony alongside names familiar to followers of Downtown public culture, including Lucy Rovetto, who contributes a few of her circles of artfully-smushed coffee grounds, sharp-eyed nature photographer Jim Legge, and the tireless Theda Sandiford, who parks a fuzzy yellow “emotional baggage cart” right in the middle of the gallery.
Despite the name of the show, not everything in “With Love From Project Greenville” foregrounds its origins. Some of the weaker pieces feel like imports from the non-geographic sphere of corporate art: posters, toothless profanity, fairy-tale prints reminiscent of illustrations in anodyne kids’ books. When the Project Greenville contributors square up to Jersey City and the environs, though, the work is often sharp and incisive, and carries sociopolitical significance even when it doesn’t mean to. Photographer Max Delgado juxtaposes three photographs of an unloved Greenville corner with another three of the Downtown pedestrian plaza. The intersection of Winfield and Ocean is depicted as rough, gloomy, and heavily policed. Newark Avenue, by contrast, feels staid, squared-away, a little too tidy. In the Greenville shots, human beings fill the frame, and their interaction is lively; Downtown is a place of too-big towers that loom impersonally over a small handful of human beings. In Greenville, the surveillance is apparent, but so is the resistance. The oppression is more subtle Downtown, but it is, perhaps, more profound.
Unlike in Fischer’s Brownstone Brooklyn, snow isn’t a blessing in Delgado’s Jersey City. Instead, tire-streaks on the bare macadam testifies to its unpleasant wetness and slickness. The elements are even heavier in Danielle Haskins’s “Fog Over the Hudson,” a shot of the Battery Park City skyline, all of its crisp lines and boxy, imposing dimensions made misty and quavering in a cobweb-like mist rising from the river. Sun shining off the impassive glass of the Goldman Sachs Tower does nothing to break up the saw-toothed sheets of ice greeting the ferry in Adrianna Alty’s “Hudson River,” another emotionally provocative photograph. Alty shoots the Statue of Liberty, back turned to the camera, in a red nighttime haze; the Lady returns, with implied fragility, in silhouette in a painting on kiln-formed glass by Richard Roberts. Hudson County is a cold place, filled with chilly corners and razor-edges, out of scale, ready to swallow up its distinctive oddball characters like librarian Charlie Markey, whose story is told in an extraordinary semi-narrative work by photographer Ray Schwartz.
Even the sunnier works are, upon closer inspection, troubled. Donchellee Fulwood’s street scenes depict sunny skies, and in “WalkStep to Success,” the kids hanging on the corner are given the go-ahead by the traffic signal to proceed to the brown-windowed buildings on the other side of the road. In another one of her mixed-media images, an artisan with a voluminous mane of black hair knits a textile for her display shelf. It all looks quite comfortable and functional — depictions of the city rendered with uncommon friendliness. But the human beings in these smiling Greenville stories are assembled from jigsaw-puzzle patches of pigment. The fault lines between the pieces are still visible. They’ve been put together, but they could just as easily be pulled apart. Patricia Olsen’s cityscape consists of melting rectangles and striated fields of oil paint, with buildings stacked upon buildings in a great amalgamation. She’s called her striking piece “View From a Train,” and it does have the feel of a scene apprehended at great speed, indistinct, and tough to grasp. It’s miles away from Brownstone Brooklyn. Nonetheless, it feels like home.
Featured works by Jim Fischer