You’ve heard the talk. Maybe you’ve seen the big banner on Newark Avenue. We’re only days from the kickoff of the first Jersey City Art Week — an unprecedented attempt to hold the annual Studio Tour and Art Fair 14C at the same time. The Fair opens its doors at the Central Railroad Terminal at Liberty State Park on Thursday, October 12 and keeps the party going until Sunday; JCAST, not superstitious at all, launches on Friday the 13th. While all that is going on, MANA Contemporary will host an open house on Sunday the 15th, and the International Sculpture Center will hold its conference in Jersey City. It’s a local event of impressive scale and ambition, and we intend to cover all of it.
But you’d be forgiven for thinking that Art Week had already begun. There’s already excellent work on view all over Jersey City: some shows opening, some shows closing, curators and creators getting ready for the biggest month of the year. Before we turn our attention to the citywide extravaganza that’s about to unfold, let’s pause for a second and acknowledge what we’ve currently got — including the reopening of a gorgeous installation that blew my mind last year.
Disaster Place @ SMUSH
Katelyn Halpern haunted the heck out of Deep Space Gallery during a long weekend in the summer of 2022. The conceptual artist turned the Cornelison Avenue art space into a bleached version of a Jersey City apartment — a psychic battleground in which two people had gotten hopelessly lost, side by side. There was a bed, there were surrender flags on the floor, there were hints of a debilitating blizzard, there were burning candles with an original scent called Early Universe, and there was the artist herself, serving gallery-goers tea. But mostly there was text: handwritten, scribbled with longing and desperation on poster-paper, some of it torn, covered with entreaties, propositions, recriminations, devastating repetitions. Halpern is recreating the Disaster Place at her own SMUSH Gallery, and she’s leaving it up for a month. That level of emotional intensity might not be survivable for a lesser artist, but Halpern, we’ve noticed, is made of pretty tough stuff. (SMUSH Gallery, 340 Summit Ave.; Sep. 29, 6-9 p.m., Sep. 30-31 3-6 p.m.; open during JCAST; suggested donation $10-$20; IG: @smushgallery, visit www.smushgallery.com.)
Disintegration @ Art House Productions
Much like “Disaster Place,” the art of Andrea McKenna feels like an expression of the pandemic mood: that combination of bewilderment, resignation, and hope that Jersey City people learned all too well. McKenna’s paints characters in transition, drifting out of existence or occluded by circumstance, losing their grips in the midst of the the storm. In “Disintegration,” she paints directly onto porous burlap, including sheets that are torn, burned, and adorned by melted metal. The bodies of her subjects are often faded, distant, and hard to make out, but the eyes are always fiercely present. Her color palette — institution greens, rust reds, pale whites, and the brown of rich topsoil — isn’t merely meant to be ghostly. It’s also an allusion to the Garden State post-industrial landscape, and our shared remembrance of life as it once was. “Disintegration” closes this weekend just as “Disaster Place” opens. One way or another, we’ll keep this difficult conversation going. (Art House Gallery, 345 Marin Blvd.; Sep 29-30, 1-4 p.m.; IG: @arthouseproductions, visit www.arthouseproductions.com.)
For the Love of the Body @ Drawing Rooms
“Disintegration” was guest-curated by Lucy Rovetto, a mixed-media provocateur who has chronicled her own encounters with loss, transience, and powerlessness in an ongoing series of gripping, hallucinatory paintings and drawings. As Jersey City artists have returned to human figuration after a few years of estrangement from the physical, Rovetto’s wounded but soulful (and sometimes surreal) portraits fit the mood of the moment. “For the Love of the Body,” a solo show, opened at Drawing Rooms last week, and it’ll hang there straight through the Studio Tour and well into November. It complements “The Unbearable Lightness of the Fantastical and Unwearable,” a show that spotlights impossible clothing, designed by the some of the state’s most audacious artists: Kate Dodd, Donna Conklin King, Bayard of EONTA Space, just to name a few of the contributors. There’ll be a reception for both shows on Saturday at 6. (Drawing Rooms, 926 Newark Ave.; open Thursdays and Fridays from 4-7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 2-6 p.m.; IG: @drawingrooms_jc, visit www.drawingrooms.org.)
It Will All Work Out @ ArtWall
Painter Kirkland Bray might be best known for his striking depictions of crowded waters: heads bobbing impassively in swimming pools, legions of snorkelers face down in caves, bodies tucked into inner tubes and sprawled on flotation devices. It’s never clear exactly why these groups have gathered. They’re just there, engaged in an amniotic float in a womblike world. Yet Bray also makes paintings where the human presence is felt, rather than seen.“It Will All Work Out” explores depopulated landscapes that have been transformed by the gardener and the architect, including Los Angeles groaning under its tree canopy, glades with well-trod paths, and hillsides smothered by great grey arches. Are they motorways? Aqueducts? Advertisements? Bray isn’t telling. His beautifully executed paintings always contain secrets — and they always leave the viewer thinking. (The ArtWall at CoolVines, 350 Warren St.; viewable during store hours; IG: @artwall_jc, visit powerhouse.coolvines.com)
Hidden Stories @ IMUR
Like Lucy Rovetto, Nick Bodoin is fascinated by faces. But while Rovetto often foregrounds trauma and suspicion in her portraits, and thus concentrates on what a face reveals, Bodoin is interested in what a face conceals. His subjects’ expressions are ambiguous, and the bigger and clearer his pressed-wood heads are, the more mysterious they become. “Hidden Stories,” his solo exhibition at pretty, well-lit IMUR, is an examination of the tantalizing, confounding illegibility of the gaze. Bodoin’s characters often peek out from frames within frames: sinuous cutouts that partially obscure eyelids, lips, cheeks, the bridges of noses. Smile lines are tucked behind colored curves; the telling wrinkle at the edge of a mouth is disguised by a serpentine band of black. It’s all a reminder of how frequently we’re forced to read faces through the fog of incomplete information, and how much guesswork we do when we encounter a stranger — or even a friend whose deception has rendered himself unfamiliar to us. “Hidden Faces” closes this weekend. (IMUR, 67 Greene St.; closing Saturday from 3-8 p.m.; IG: @imur.art.us, visit www.imurart.com.)
La Ofrenda @ Commuter Gallery
Technically, an ofrenda is any offering left at a shrine. But artists associate it with the Mexican Day of the Dead and the lowering of barriers between the world of the living and the realm of spirits. After a peek behind the veil, (imaginatively, one hopes), Gino Carlo Markocs has brought back big, lurid, graphic paintings of beasts with naked, muscular human bodies and animal heads. They float in roiling ether and stare out with feral expressions — manic eyes, fangs and horns exposed, frazzled feathers and sharp beaks, scars and red streaks on their torsos. Yet these wild creatures are not evil. Unpredictable and dangerous, yes, malicious?, not at all. They stand ward on the walls of the gallery at the PATH, ready to serve as guardians, or guides, for travelers stuck between stations. There’ll be a dance performance and tarot card readings at Saturday’s closing event. Expect something shamanistic, and maybe even transportive. (Commuter Gallery, 15 PATH Plaza; 6 p.m.; IG: @gino.markocs.)
Dreamscapes @ Fine Arts Gallery
“The Sound of Twilight,” one of the cornerstones of “Dreamscapes” at the Fine Arts Gallery at Saint Peter’s University, is an illustration of everything that painter Caridad Sierra Kennedy does well. It’s full of bright, appealing colors and intriguing shapes, and it seems to have an organic pulse. Yet this assembly of flowers, stalks, cells, and stars looks like nothing on earth. It could be a star skein, yes, but it could also be something glimpsed under a microscope. The piece radiates fertility and femininity — everything depicted seems to be in the process of germinating. And while the overall tone of the canvas is welcoming, there’s an alien undercurrent that intensifies the longer you look at it. That unsettled feeling is even more intense in Kennedy’s melting watercolors, one of which is called “The Natural World Is Deceptively Edgy.” You don’t say, Caridad. (The Fine Arts Gallery at the Mac Mahon Student Center, Saint Peter’s University, 47 Glenwood Ave.; open through the 2023 Studio Tour; IG: @caridadkennedyart, visit www.saintpeters.edu/fineartsgallery.