"Madame Pele," by Shamona Stokes
"Madame Pele," by Shamona Stokes

One of the refreshing things about visual art in Jersey City is its gender balance. In other cities, some of which are quite nearby, decisionmakers at cultural institutions are mostly male. Not so here. A prominent exhibition is just as likely to have been curated by a woman as it is by a man. Art Fair 14C, the biggest annual show in town, is staffed and run by women. The city’s head of Cultural Affairs is female, and the enterprise she founded — Art House Productions, organizers of JC Fridays — remains a female-fronted operation. The prettiest gallery Downtown is run by a woman, and the galleries at the local colleges and universities are, too. Although MANA recently named a male director, much of its 2022 programming has been handled by the female-guided Monira Foundation.  Many of the officers of ProArts, our flagship arts advocacy group, are women.  Politics, music, journalism, real estate and development: in Jersey City, as elsewhere, all of these are male-dominated fields. But visual artists can approach Women’s History Month with their heads held high.

So it’s no coincidence that many of our best known artists are female. Nor is it coincidental that so many of those artists have been able to double as curators, or organizers, or leaders. “Mothership Connection,” an all-female show that will run at Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison Ave.) until Apr. 10, features more than a few artists whose local prominence isn’t merely about aesthetics. This was not a deliberate choice by curators and gallery-runners Jenna Geiger and Keith van Pelt: it’s just how we roll.

Danielle Scott, for instance, has been everywhere lately, showing her assemblages at Bridge Gallery in Bayonne, adding work to the permanent collection at the Newark Museum, getting written up in Essence, and generally doing Jersey City proud. A year ago, she curated the inaugural ProArts group exhibit at 150 Bay Street, a politically charged show, and she tucked some scalding work into “A Message From The Underground” at MANA, the only 2021 exhibition that was more incendiary than the one she’d organized. Yet her three pieces in “Mothership Connection” feel hopeful: explorations of childhood creative potential that are heartwarming enough to decorate a birthday card. “Little Violinist” fits a gossamer-winged African-American girl with a fiddle too big for her and a large pink bow, fashioned from a knitting needle and affixed to the work with resin. The look on her face is fierce and defensive, but there’s a crown on her head, and the song she’s playing (the work re-purposes the sheet music) is optimistic. The struggle is real, but talent will triumph.

“The Queen” is less ambiguous. Here, the young girl is captured in profile. There’s a laurel wreath on her head, she’s decked in gold and seashells, and her forward-looking face is bathed in white light. In “Girl With Holy Water,” just by being herself, a young Asian-American defies the massive field of proper names that form the background of the piece. The type of the name-register is fixed in cold black and white, but the flowers that bloom around her are colorful, as is the parade of butterflies that stream from her head. Kendrick Lamar would certainly recognize the symbolism.

Scott’s pieces resonate with the tight, radiant circles on the opposite wall. Rebecca N. Johnson was the star of one of Deep Space’s most inspired 2021 shows, and “Mothership Connection” brings her back for an encore. Johnson’s pretty girls are situated in chrysalis-like teacups, vases, and planters; there, they’re watered like seeds, and flowers spring from their bodies and snake toward the heavens. This is femininity imagined as the wellspring of creativity, and Johnson’s paintings challenge the viewer to treat women with care, lest the vessel shatter and their generative potential be destroyed. Like the subject of Scott’s “Girl With Holy Water,” Johnson’s heroines have their eyes closed — they’re engaged in an intense personal experience, and they’re drawing strength from their interiority, just as all blooming things pull sustenance from the soil.

Petals, planters, and images of butterflies also show up in the paintings and sculptures of another Jersey City art citizen and community leader: Shamona Stokes, who is currently directing the effort to turn the studio spaces at Elevator (135 Erie St.), a recent Silverman Company redevelopment, into a hive of arts activity. Stokes has one of the most recognizable styles around. Her ceramic sculptures and watercolor paintings are a little bit fairy-tale whimsical, a little bit winsome, and a little bit evil. Stokes’s work is one hundred per cent feminine and invariably fetching, even when it’s unsettling. “Madame Pele” is a black container bursting with oil pastel blooms, which smear and jostle, bunch and ooze, and draw the eye toward the boisterous pink storm at the chaotic top of the image. Pele, as every Hawaiian (and Tori Amos fan) knows, is the goddess of the volcano, and Stokes’s flower-bowl version of the deity is simultaneously lethal and delightful. She affixes a displeased and angle-eyed face, complete with a cute but judgmental downturned mouth, right in the middle of the charcoal countenance. This adorable vessel of magma and ash cannot disguise its disapproval. Like many of Shamona Stokes’s pieces, it terrifies me and makes me laugh out loud.

“Lepidoptera,” the largest work in the entire “Mothership Connection” at 55” x 77”, depicts a butterfly — or is it a moth? — with a feminine body stained a deep, hypnotic black. Its featureless face is graced with two antennae that branch like dried leaves. These curl up on the bug’s brow, and resemble carefully styled eyelashes. It’s enveloping, it’s sinister, it’s pleasantly suffocating, and it’s even, God help me, kinda sexy. Just as Johnson highlights the earthly, elemental quality of her images by painting in lime wash, and Scott makes her surfaces shine with resin, Stokes incorporates salt into the wings of her butterfly, bestowing a marble-like texture on the paint, and imparting her distinctive combination of fantasy and firmness to her great girl-insect.

Stokes’ butterfly-face shows us nothing but cilia, Johnson’s shuttered-eyed women weep tears of water, Dena Paige Fischer’s concrete sculptures on thin wires, impassive as mo’ai, have shadowed indentations where eyes ought to be. “Violet Muse,” her most arresting piece, presents a face with the top sawed off; somehow its nostrils and mouth are still able to communicate haughty disdain. Cortney Herron’s heavy-lidded female subjects, with thick fields of earthtone color for their cheeks, never seem to engage with the viewer directly. They look to the side, or past us; they dare us to follow their gaze and ask us, implicitly, to be worthy of their attention.

Yet the knottiest riddle in the show is provided by Delilah Ray Miske, who teases us with mirrors, and productively misdirect our eyes around her beige-walled interiors. In “On The Farm March 2020,” a woman in a sweatshirt and camouflage-green hunting cap is occluded from observation by the angle of her body — she’s throwing a thick shoulder at us, and staring in the opposite direction. Only in her reflection do we catch her measure: she’s as guarded as can be, with a yellow scarf wrapped around her mouth and black sunglasses covering the rest of her face. This is a bit of pandemic-era storytelling, to be sure, but it’s also a comment on the elegance of inaccessibility, the lure of the woman removed, under wraps, untouchable and distant, yet always keeping a wary eye on us.

If all of this sounds regal, even queenly, well, maybe that’s only to be expected in a town with so many independent-minded female artists and entrepreneurs.  But “Mothership Connection” is never inaccessible. Some of it is remarkably plush. Sarah Grace makes flat but huggable pieces out of tufted acrylic yarn, and chooses quotidian objects to mimic, including a lighter with a flickering orange “flame,” a house key, a glass of wine with a squiggle of sulfite, a pair of asymmetrically appealing breasts. All of these hang near the entrance, colorful, squeezable, and inviting, like vertical welcome mats. Molly Craig’s work is similarly homespun, and similarly endearing, but she uses glass beads and cardstock rather than bunches of fiber to replicate a pair of ordinary objects that share a color — a bottle of Jarritos orange soda and the front cover of Eat A Peach by The Allman Brothers. Glass baubles, yarn, salt, lime: art on the Mothership is made from humble materials. Kelly Villalba’s beautiful baskets appear sleek, but they’ve been cinched together with rope and jute, with careful attention to the rhythms of the colors of the thread. Their roughness is an asset. They look well-used and well-loved; containers for the preservation of keepsakes.

Even the architectural pieces in the show (and architecture is a running sub-theme of “Mothership Connection”) feel approachable and lived-in. Miki Matsuyama brings us acrylics of interiors, including an image of “Georgia O’Keefe’s Studio And Fireplace” with brown desert hills melting in the sun beyond the panel windows. They split the difference between sketches meant to preserve a memory of a trip and illustrations a buyer might encounter in a real estate brochure. The glazed ceramics of apartment windows fashioned by Francesca Reyes, by contrast, don’t seem motivated to sell anything to anybody. They’re snapshots of the city, and tantalizing hints of the lives that might be led behind those thick urban curtains.

Then there are the continuing experiments in pure structure, committed to the canvas in blue oil and Venetian plaster by the geometric-minded Kati Vilim. Her paintings are, as always, dances of shape and color, set to rhythms of her own invention. Like many of the artists here, her work has been exhibited widely, including recent shows at the Monmouth Museum and NJIT in Newark. On the Mothership, though, she’s among fellow travelers — deep space explorers developing their own symbolism, their own visual language and logic, reclaiming their own particular materials and honing their techniques in a strange place in the galaxy, far from male supervision. And yes, by that, I do mean Jersey City.

Tris McCall

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,...