Call it coincidence or call it causal.  Either way, it can’t be denied that the neighborhoods of Manhattan that are most saturated with art, and art galleries, are the easiest ones to access from Jersey City.  The PATH train stops in Chelsea twice.  The first platform in Manhattan is right on Christopher Street.  Depending on train luck, it’s a quicker trip from Grove Street to the Ivy Brown Gallery (675 Hudson Street) than it is to Bayonne, or even Greenville.  Should you drop in there now (you’ll have to do it by appointment) you might wonder if you’ve even crossed the river.  Until late February, the loft space at Ivy Brown will feel like an extremely eastern extension of the Jersey City art scene. “Critically Random,” the current show, might have been plucked from ART150 or Drawing Rooms and transplanted in the shadow of the High Line.  If you frequent local exhibitions, the names on the price list and the style of art on view will be very familiar to you.

Valerie Huhn — The Ear and Neurons And Arteries Of The Brain

This expeditionary force includes some of our best.  Megan Klim has brought a few of her square-shaped marvels: off-white assemblages of plaster, shellac, tacks, and rusty screens, grid-like and geometric and somehow simultaneously evoking beehives and computer schematics.  Insects also seem to have burrowed, artfully, into Robert Lach’s disassembled suitcases, leaving behind smooth mounds of termite-shavings. He’s also suspended nests of fabric, sticks, and glue from the walls of the gallery, inviting visitation from courageous birds.  Both Lach and Klim work at the intersection of the organic and the built environment, investigating the rhythms and sub-literate emotions of the biosphere, making the machinery breathe.  Lach’s sawdust cones pop up at odd angles, like hornet’s nests on the side of buildings; Klim’s gauze on cream-colored surfaces suggest bruised skin.  The natural world is fragile and breakable, but it’s also logical, and resilient, and in a constant process of adaptation and survival.

Robert Lach — Colony V

These negotiations between the inanimate and the living have been taking place in New Jersey for decades. Klim and Lach are notable figures in Garden State not merely because they make fascinating objects that keep revealing new dimensions the longer they’re looked at, but also because they’re participants in an ongoing discourse about the place of the human being in the natural world.  They’re inspired by the biological, but their materials are industrial: plaster, wire, non-decorative ceramic, scrapped wood, adhesive, plain old junk. The living leaves its imprint on the constructed landscape, and vice versa. The visionary Valerie Huhn literalizes this through a sculptural practice that involves human fingerprints on acetate, hundreds of them in various colors, affixed to the tops of pushpins and driven in bunches into everyday objects.  In “Critically Random,” the main subjects of this acupuncture are books, open vertically on the wall, dotted with bright swirls, a rainbow of human signification hovering above the black and white of print.  Many of the pages she’s adorned are from Gray’s Anatomy; one is from The Wonders of Science for Children.  Sometimes, she strings the pushpins across the page like faerie lights made of fingerprints, and sometimes she clusters them atop illustrations of body parts: the eye, the heart, the visual cortex of the brain.

Huhn is one of the state’s most original artists, and her work is also among the most visually coherent.  Her pieces announce her presence: they don’t look a bit like anything else you’ll see in a gallery.  Though she’s not from Jersey City — her studio is in Flemington — her work has been an enlivening and occasionally terrifying presence in many recent local shows.  Her Hunterdon County neighbor Terri Fraser hasn’t shown much in Hudson County.  That ought to change.  Her sculptures pair so well with the pieces by Lach and Kim that they could be pen pals. Like Klim, Fraser is drawn to metal lattices: twisted grids of wire coated with encaustic, gleaming rings of copper and steel, and the occasional flower caught up in the works. Like Lach, Fraser fashions nest-like objects that feel imbued with nonhuman intelligence.  If Lach’s sawdust cones and hanging snarls of wood suggest a collaboration with flying and buzzing things, Fraser’s tight, radiant sculptures pack an arachnid bite. 

There’s something spider-like about all the works in “Critically Random,” and that includes the text sculptures of the two artists in the show who aren’t from New Jersey. The Italians Federica Patera and Andrea Sbra Perego wrap a web of steel-wire words in black nylon yarn, cram them together to the brink of illegibility, and hang their collisions on the wall.  There they stare back at the viewer with a challenge — disentangle us.  In their impertinence (and their adaptive reuse of industrial waste), they’d fit in well at a Garden State show.  But “Critically Random” doesn’t beg for ratification from the Downtown audience.  Instead, it’s content to be exactly what it is: one of the most interesting shows currently on view in the New Jersey metropolitan area.

Featured at top: Megan Klim’s Woven #2 and Woven #3

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,...