On Morgan Street, the umbrellas are out. In defiance of a long-running superstition, they’re open indoors. Perhaps because nobody holds them, the pall of misfortune rests on no single set of shoulders. Instead, these umbrellas and parasols are mounted on the wall. The protection they bestow is general, and permanent. They couldn’t be closed even if their fashioner — the Jersey City artist Brian Gustafson — wanted to shut them. That’s because he’s made them from tinted glass.
Gustafson’s handles and tips are steel, but the shields against the weather would shatter if the umbrellas were dropped from a height, or thrown to the ground by a stiff breeze. The commentary on the fragility of guardianship is hard to miss. So is the sheer winsomeness of the objects that Gustafson has made.
The technique of slumping glass — heating the material over extraordinarily high flame in a mold — sounds savage, but the effect is gentle. The curves of his umbrella-edges feel lived-in and rain-worn; somehow the artist captures and freezes the windswept flounce of canvas and the glaze of precipitation on the surface of the fabric. His umbrella rods, too, are beautiful: some twisted like wrought-iron, some with a near industrial bluntness, some with Poppins-ish delicacy, all ending above the surface of the glass in a businesslike point.
Those who frequent Anne Novado’s pretty gallery in the Powerhouse Arts District have, no doubt, seen one of Gustafson’s glass parasols before. But it’s a rare treat indeed to catch so many of them in the same place. Six of them poke out from the walls of “The 2023 Sculpture Invitational,” which will occupy Novado Gallery (110 Morgan St.) until Nov. 11. Gustafson and the gallerist have positioned the umbrellas to catch the light and throw shimmery pastel shadows on white walls. These pieces aren’t merely in dialogue with each other. They’re in dialogue with their reflections.
The sculpture exhibition closes a strong year for a gallery that isn’t always as loud or showy as its neighbors but remains a load-bearing pillar of the Jersey City arts scene. (A graceful pillar, mind you, since everything about Novado Gallery is gracefully done.) “The 2023 Sculpture Invitational” extends the buzz of Studio Tour weekend into the deep autumn, inviting some familiar creators and visual pranksters back for a final exhibition before the holiday season. Every one of the nine artists involved in this show contributes exemplary work — work that exhibits the mark of artists pushing themselves.
Take, for instance, Josh Urso, who has spent the last few years delighting and unnerving Jersey City audiences with his precarious stacks of cracked concrete. “Interchange” consists of five narrow columns, each one creatively smashed and reassembled, sometimes in defiance of gravity. Urso has applied brightly colored paint to the roughest and most ragged concrete surfaces, and he’s called attention to the fissures in the blocks with splashes of acrylic. It looks as if something volcanic, or maybe organic, within these grey sticks is desperate to burst out. Notably, Urso has angled his towers so that none of the rough fields of hot pink and grass green directly faces any other. The shadows spread out from the towers in disparate vectors of shade. There’s an interchange going on here, but it’s an indirect one. It operates by illusion, and suggestion, and maybe by happenstance. Ironic, then, that this may be the prettiest sculpture Urso has ever done — his most pleasing assembly of color, texture, and jagged shape.
Robert Lach, too, pushes his established techniques into fertile territory. Like many Garden State artists, Lach raids the junkyards and repurposes trash. What truly distinguishes him, though, is how he gets his amalgamations of industrial detritus to resemble combs made by insects, birds nests, and the warrens of burrowing animals. “Reef III,” charismatic in bright Gatorade blue-green, is a compound structure about the size of a soccer ball. Its tentacles and cylinders are suggestive of coral, but it looks hungrier and more demanding than any reef a snorkeler might pass. That is, perhaps, residue of its past life: Lach has made the whole thing out of alcohol empties that he’s softened, and stained, stretched and artfully mangled.
Jerome China also sifts through the dump, but unlike Lach, he doesn’t disguise what he finds there. His three pieces in “Sculpture Invitational” consist of discarded garden equipment, including saws, chicken wire, springs, rake-teeth, all spot-welded together into stacks and given bristling life. The rust on every surface testifies to long histories of hard labor, and China’s figures confront the viewer with weary, weather-beaten dignity. Syd Carpenter’s rich, emotionally provocative ceramic pieces have a similar gravity to them, and a comparable will to anthropomorphize a long-forgotte artifact: the wooden split clothespin, which, in her two stoneware pieces, are represented, enlarged, and centered. They radiate maternal energy and generative warmth. They’re towers holding up objects from our collective domestic imagination, including rings and fences, wooden posts, torn wicker baskets, all fashioned, with virtuosic skill, from clay.
Then there’s mischievous Paul Leibow, another Novado Gallery favorite. He treats battered old vinyl record players with similar care, and similar respect for the centripetal forces of history that keeps that which is solid from falling into entropy. In “Motown Feel-Licks,” he’s painted his cheeky reimagined figure of Felix the Cat on a decades-old soul record, and placed it on a vintage turntable enlivened by coats of red and white paint. When set on its side and hung on the wall, the record player acts as a frame, and the LP becomes a circular portrait. The reclamation makes the shattered arcs of black vinyl in his “Broken Record” feel all the more striking, and all the more sad.
Like the work by Lach and Gustafson, pieces by China, Carpenter, and Leibow feel like extensions of established artistic obsessions: chases of color, shape, and texture down long and ghost-lit corridors. Linda Streicher, another contributor to the show, is better known for her geometric painting than she is for her sculpture, but her corner installation is, unmistakably, her spider-weaving handiwork. It isn’t the chartreuse metal steps receding into a grey expanse that makes “Yellow Brick Road” feel like a Streicher fabrication. It’s the scores of tiny crisscrossing dowels, fiber,s and nests of string that connect this sculpture to Streicher’s interest in the crazy rhythms of the built environment and her training as an architect. It is, in the style of all of Streicher’s pieces, an exhibition of intelligence, something equally cool and confusing, a confrontation, an encounter with the algorithm at the heart of construction.
The “Yellow Brick Road” runs right next to Urso’s “Interchange.” They could be part of the deep and dreamlike structure of the same fragile city — held together by a combination of ingenuity, gravity, and hope. Stephen Datz’s faceless but charming “Burgers of Liliput” could be denizens of that city, right along with the quasi-human figures of Todd Lambrix’s headless, somewhat less friendly statuettes, girded against the outside world in their bristly skirts and golden underpants, but vulnerable as schoolgirls in their Mary Jane flats.
It’s a formidable collection of sculptors that Novado has assembled here, and further evidence of how finely-tuned her curatorial instincts have become. Everything in the “Sculpture Invitational” looks exactly like something you’d see at Novado Gallery, even as none of it resembles anything else in the show very much. She’s party-planned this well: everything plays nicely together and generates productive friction and crosstalk, with lots of weirdness, lots of color, plenty of elegance, whimsy, and tangled paths to follow. Many of the artists in this show were featured performers in the Gallery’s excellent 2023, including China, who curated the incisive “Black’ity Black” exhibition of African-American abstract art, and Urso, who presented cracked concrete slabs of surprising delicacy in the “Site: Fragment” show. It makes “The 2023 Sculpture Invitational” feel like an encore performance. You’ve got a few weeks left before the curtain comes down, the aisles empty, and Novado and her team get ready to do it all again in 2024.