There was a wall made of PVC pipe stuffed with drinking straws, and positioned by the sculptor Josué Urbina to catch and channel the light, and guide the eye down strange and narrow passages. There was a page from a child’s fantasy: an image of photographer Megan Maloy’s wide-eyed daughter, a frog, and a fairy-tale forest. There was, in an adjacent gallery, a map of New Jersey, with ribbons attached to spectral photographs snapped by the tireless Garden State chronicler Dorie Dahlberg. There was sand-saturated paint slathered on screen-door mesh by Tarik Mendes, broken and reassembled cinderblock bricks by Josh Urso, stark, murmuring landscapes by printer Kim Bricker, and mylar balloons refashioned into children’s clothing and hung on a line by impish, imaginative Mollie Thonnesson.
All of that was at 150 Bay Street; a little to the west, a charmless condominium atrium was enlivened by mystical circular paintings by Katie Niewodowski that glowed like nodes on the sephirot; at Casa Colombo, Caridad Sierra Kennedy’s plays of color abutted Scot Wittman’s shots of ballet dancers in mid-pirouette in sunlit caves and forest glades. Art House Productions premiered a beautiful new exhibition space fronting Warren Street. Donchellee Fulwood leaned her winsome, puzzle-like paintings against the walls of Calabar, a new gallery behind the leasing office at the Beacon, and DISTORT, Jersey City’s most prolific street artist, threw open the doors of his studio at the Tenmarc building and shared medieval-looking scrolls he’d fashioned out of used spray paint cans. Trish Gianakis hung spherical cages from the ceiling of the Fine Art Gallery at St. Peter’s, Kubra Ada made the walls at EONTA Space bloom with her marbled paper designs, and a team of iconoclasts at New Jersey City University shook up the stilled life until it popped and fizzed.
JCAST presented Jersey City as a place of wonders — a home to artists, recognized and obscure, making their voices heard and visions visible. But for it to be properly told, the story of the thirty-second version of the annual Tour must foreground on an institution that hasn’t always been well integrated into the scene: MANA Contemporary, the massive and moneyed arts complex at the western end of Newark Avenue. This year, MANA jumped into the deep puddle that is Jersey City arts with both feet, and made a nice, big, muddy splash. To the clatter of drums on the street, the Tour opened at MANA on Thursday night; the complex took over two spaces on the far side of Dey Street and turned them into community galleries. Under a Senate St. tent, MANA even fed people.
Most importantly, MANA was accessible, and tour-able. Not every artist in the complex opened his or her grey door to the public, but enough did — on both weekend days — that the arts center hinted at the conceptual unity and communitarian spirit that its designers have always promised to create. In the past, MANA Contemporary personnel have sometimes behaved like the rock stars who play at the Prudential Center in Newark but still insist on greeting the crowd with a lusty “hello, New York.” In 2022 MANA was no car that had caught a flat on the way to the tunnel. It was a cornerstone of the town’s biggest cultural event. As an acknowledgment, here’s a rundown of eleven marvelous artists whose work I experienced at MANA last weekend. Bookmark this for the next time MANA opens its studios, which will, no doubt, be soon. Right, guys?
- Many artists have experimented with paint thickeners. I’m not sure, though, that I’ve ever seen anybody go as far as Sofia Saleh, whose work consists of chewing gum on canvas. She’s fashioned her mastications into images both abstract and figurative, each one visually bold and personal in a manner that can probably only be achieved when the medium has been in the artist’s mouth. If this sounds a little icky, well, it is, a bit, but she’s also able to achieve effects — elasticity, texture, under-the-schoolroom-desk immediacy— that probably couldn’t have been attained in any other way. As for the images themselves, they’re striking, and memorable, and (sorry) will give the viewer a lot to chew on.
- What sort of congregations gather in a Leandro Comrie canvas? Comrie, a master of expression, gives us faces tired and wary, sometimes alarmed, sometimes shrouded, sometimes eager for interaction. But everybody — everybody! — in Comrie’s paintings seems to be concealing a question. Some of his images probe the blurry parameters of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religious identity; some cut even deeper than that. They’re riddles in oil from a storyteller whose depictions of human beings (and semi-human creatures) don’t look like anybody else’s.
- Osmeli Delgado’s current problem is a good one to have: her new works generate so much gorgeous visual distortion that they can’t be captured in a photo and posted to Instagram. They require you to move around them, and when they do, they’ll strum your optic nerves like a lute. Delgado suspends scores of thin strings in front of a field of tiny parallel lines bounded by fields of solid color. Shake your head even slightly when you’re staring at one, and those lines will appear to swim and twist, and an illusion of depth will be generated. Many of the artists at MANA are on to something personal and singular. Delgado is right in the middle of that vanguard.
- Then there’s Seth Howe, whose conjuring tricks aren’t dissimilar. This weekend, Howe, an architect, invites viewers into a small room with walls painted in single colors: blue, yellow, pink. In the center of the chamber, he’s erected a tower that’s a little taller than a human. Howe’s rectangular prism has slats like a stepladder (don’t climb it), each one made of reflective material. The result? A scramble of hues and shifting shapes, and a chromatic merry-go-round that will fool you into thinking it’s more solid than it is. Take the column from the multicolored room, and it’s still a beautifully fashioned object, even if it’s a bit less bewildering. How do we know? He’s got little 3D-printed replicas in his large studio down the hall, plus a flipbook recording the relative size and dimensions of the apertures as the tower is viewed from different angles. I’ll bet he sees it in his dreams. Maybe you will, too.
- A visit to MANA can be overwhelming. With six floors of studios to investigate, it is’t always easy to know where to start. Suite 218 is always a solid bet. That’s the home of the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation, a nonprofit that provides rotating residencies in the building, and regularly shows off what its designated artists are up to. Last weekend, that meant wallspace for French-born painter Adrien Marçais, whose bright green and fevered depictions of tangled trunks and rubbery branches in the jungles of South America generate their own steam, and feel like a visual metaphor for work in progress. Gabriela Horikawa’s gripping paintings, many done with a palette knife, feel quite a bit cooler, but no less wet. Among other images, she’s given us a street scene of rainy Liverpool, all grey and blue shapes on a crowded street, everything squelching in the spaces between buildings. Better still is an image of a chilly interior with a chair in the distance and huddled human figures in the foreground. It might take a moment to figure the painting out. Then, in an upswelling of mood and drama, it coalesces.
- In general, MANA is a place for viewing, not for reading. But if you know where to look for it, this arts center warehouses plenty of text, too. Amy Wilson is a writer as well as a visual artist, and she reinforces the melancholy feel of her illustrations with letterboxed sentences and paragraphs about the instability of the moment, the quest for beauty, and the uncomfortable surfacing of things long repressed. Better still is a stitched image of a woman whose body is held together, tenuously, by roots and vines. She’s encircled by sentences that warn that physical unraveling can begin long before we reach our end. Are the letters surrounding the subject helping to keep her intact, or is this a message from outer reaches that she’ll only know once she’s fully unraveled?
- There aren’t any words at all in Preksha Kapadia’s textile art, but she’s on a similar quest for beauty, balance, and emotional succor. For the gorgeous “Cotton Connecation,” she’s rolled up strips of fabric in different colors — mostly browns, off-whites, and oranges — placed these tight spirals of color in a larger circle, and mounted the whole thing on the wall. It hangs in the basement gallery alongside a sister piece that’s almost entirely white. And right near the door, there’s a fuzzy caterpillar of fabric, made of discs of fraying cotton, strung together one after the other, curled and cozy, and crowding the edges of a fabric square about the size of a picture book. Like everything in Kapadia’s little space, it hums with life, pulses with quiet confidence, and practically cries out to be touched.
- Those who attended last year’s Art Fair 14C may be familiar with the MK Apothecary gang — particularly Sarah Beckdel, whose oil paintings of soulful animals felt like a challenge to us biosphere-wrecking humans. The Collingswood, NJ gallery has opened a satellite at MANA, and they’ve brought along some favorites, including Timothy Prettyman, whose tricky little acrylics feel at once totemic and soothing. But I was particularly struck by oil painter David Tyndall, whose precisely rendered images of trains feel like stills from a dream. The “Open Door” in the middle of an orange, graffiti-tagged boxcar shines with prairie daylight; two silver subway cars kiss beside a brightly painted brick wall. These paintings feel fully American, but it’s hard to tell what part of the country they represent: they feel like a superimposition of New York City on to New Mexico, with a brisk cornfield wind blowing through the whole thing. Regardless, he’s in touch with a weird national spirit.
- Carlo Ontal has some ideas about the United States, too. His vision, though, is frighteningly international. As a worker for the United Nations, he’s seen his share of peacekeeping missions, and it’s pretty clear he reached a saturation point and snapped. He’s placed a crown of thorns on the bowed head of an African Jesus, led him through the stations of the cross in warzones too hellish to be anyplace but earth. In order to stage these brutal shots, Ontal sought — and gained — the cooperation of bloody local warlords, some of whom show up on camera. Was he out of line? Absent without leave? Who is to say? What’s indisputable is that Ontal has brought back stunning work that raises questions about the Western appetite for violence, the nature of war reporting, exploitation of suffering, the efficacy of the U.N., and the parasitic nature of the documentary industry. He’s laid it out for us, (staged) blood and gore and all. Not for the squeamish, but absolutely rewarding for the courageous.
- I’ve saved my favorite for last. In Kota Onouchi’s breathtaking portraits, the references to Vermeer and Rembrandt are evident. They’re there in the way he represents light, his attraction to shadows and partial occlusion, and in the haunted looks on his subjects’ faces. Onouchi mixes his own paint, and presents his work with the care and thoughtfulness of a good museum curator: lots of illumination, lots of space between canvases. Yet he isn‘t a classicist — not completely, anyway. The clothing, colors, and attitudes of his sitters (who might be imaginary) suggest that they’re modern people. On close inspection, his techniques suggest familiarity with contemporary oil painting. By connecting his new works to a very old tradition, Onouchi makes a case for the persistent relevance of portraiture, and its uncanny ability to bring to life people you’ve never met and never will. Kota Ounuchi has summoned these characters into being. I was thrilled to make their acquaintance. Above all else, and all the wonderful stuff I saw last weekend, I recommend you get to know them, too.
Featured work: Carlo Ontal “Fish and Bread”