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Art Spaces Adjust to a New Reality


Drawing Rooms was ready for spring.

The West Side gallery was set to welcome visitors to an extraordinary show: “Hands and Other Symbols,” a burst of color and imaginative design. Then came the pathogen — and with it curfews and closures.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do to move forward in the current climate,” says Anne Trauben, curator and exhibition director of Drawing Rooms (www.drawingrooms.org).

Like other arts leaders around town, Trauben is concerned about the future of the space she has created. The “Hands and Other Symbols” party at Drawing Rooms on the 14th of March may well be remembered as the last opening in Jersey City for a very long time.

The mood on March 1 — the first Jersey City Fridays of the year — had been hopeful. The gallery at Art House mounted an elegiac tribute to the late local painter Hamlet Manzueta. The SMUSH Gallery in McGinley Square allowed dancer and artist Myssi Robinson to decorate its walls with a dazzling array of sawtooth-shaped triangles. Pat Lay’s wry show, in which she teased religious symbolism out of computer processors, was still running at the new Dvora Gallery. All over town, the work on view was imaginative, provocative and playful, and there was promise of more to come.

Today, those rooms are silent. The global health crisis has emptied out the galleries and closed the doors of our creative spaces. Most of the arts institutions in Jersey City work on thin margins. Even in good times, it’s difficult to keep galleries solvent. Frozen in place and with few ways to act, local curators face an unprecedented challenge.

Some of the larger institutions have made a transition to digital-only exhibitions. MANA Contemporary (www.manacontemporary.com), for instance, has moved all of its programming to its website. Art House Productions (www.arthouseproductions.org), one of the older and more active arts organizations in Hudson County, maintains a virtual gallery, and continues to host activities and performances through its site.

“We’ve implemented some online programming which seems to be working well,” says Art House Gallery curator Andrea McKenna. “We had a ‘virtual story slam’ and Drag Bingo hosted by Harmonica Sunbeam this past Friday. We’re gearing up for another week with more programs.”

Art House attendees are accustomed to regular exhibitions, and McKenna isn’t keen on breaking that streak even if congregating is prohibited. The April show will be shown in the Art House vestibule, and the opening will be held at a later date. There’ll also be a taped component to the show that will be hosted on the organization’s website.

“My advice to my fellow artists,” says McKenna, “is to take this time to create. It’s the one that I have that truly centers me. If I’m in a good state of mind, I can properly help others who need me.”

That sort of communitarian spirit is at the heart of the SMUSH Gallery (www.smushgallery.com), but SMUSH, like most smaller Jersey City arts spaces, lacks the resources necessary to create an internet-only alternative to the brick-and-mortar McGinley Square space it calls home. For now, one of our town’s brightest lights has been dimmed.

“I’m not ambitious about replacing our in-gallery programming with online content,” says curator and owner Katelyn Halpern. “It doesn’t make sense for SMUSH to compete with organizations and companies that have really figured out how to do this.”

“Being a young, active arts organization took all our available work hours, and creating a contingency for long-term shutdown just never made the to-do list.”

For Halpern, running a gallery and performance space means physical proximity to other people — which is exactly what we’ve all been cautioned not to do. Halpern designed the space as a neighborhood hangout. With congregating discouraged, she explains, SMUSH can’t act as the facilitator of community involvement that it was created to be.

“SMUSH is about people being together with art and each other,” says Halpern, “and that’s not happening right now, so SMUSH is not really happening right now. We do plan to be back once this is over, but we’re also realistic about how unknowable the rest of the year is.”

Halpern isn’t worried about the immediate future — SMUSH just had its major fundraiser — but, like Trauben, expresses concerns about the long-term viability of the enterprise. For creators of small galleries like SMUSH, Drawing Rooms and Deep Space, the business is a labor of love: They’re here for the art first and the money only after that. Bayard, the prime mover at Eonta Space (www.eontaspacenj.com), agrees with Halpern about both the difficulty of transitioning to online presentation and a sense of mission that transcends financial considerations.

“When it comes to Eonta,” says Bayard, “money can just kiss my ass. Eonta is about art in its purest sense. We don’t charge anything, we don’t take commissions. And online is altogether too much work for too small a reward because art should be up in your face, live and in person.”

The spring Eonta show, an exhibition called “Multiply” featuring prints, marbling, and photography, has been postponed until the fall. Bayard is upstate for the duration of the crisis, and Eonta is on hold. Nevertheless, he refuses to get down, and he has some advice for Jersey City that’s commensurate with his status as a local provocateur.

“Create something beautiful, or not,” says Bayard, “but create a life that is worthy of living and that is worthy of art, and create art that is worthy of life.”

“Don’t be blue, be Yves Klein blue.”

Photo courtesy Drawing Rooms, from “Hands and Other Symbols”.

 

Header: Self-Portrait by David W. Cummings

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Art Review: “One Year After,” a Retrospective of Hamlet Manzueta’s Work


Innocence is a loaded word. When applied to art by critics, it’s often a backhanded compliment: a hint to the reader that the work under examination lacks the moral and psychological complexity we’ve come to expect from masterpieces. At best, it’s a testament to the artist’s purity of vision. At worst, it’s a version of the oldest critique in the book: the one that says “a child could have done that.” 

Hamlet Manzueta courtesy Art House Productions

Technically, a child *could* have done some of Hamlet Manzueta’s pieces. It would have to have been an extremely talented child, though — one with a budding eye for composition, and a natural sense of the power of color, and an impish sense of humor, too. Some of Manzueta’s stick figures and smiley faces do fall flat: They get over on cuteness, or crowd-pleasing appeal, or a straightforward promise of delight that proves to be all too ephemeral. But then there are others that are positively searing. They communicate, in a few brisk strokes, a combination of fragility and impossible hope that is rare to behold in any art form. In these paintings, Manzueta sings in a high, clear voice, one that contains a note of terror in it but gives no sign of breaking. In these paintings, Manzueta demonstrates exactly how powerful — and sophisticated — innocence can be. 

“One Year After,” a retrospective exhibition that will be on view at the Art House Gallery through the end of March, places those simpler works in the company of others that aren’t quite so guileless and establishes Manzueta as a painter of considerable breadth and talent — more than just our homegrown answer to Daniel Johnston. Curator Andrea McKenna also shows pure abstract works, large painted canvases with quasi-representational figures on them, and at least one image (a flower garden) that could fairly be called impressionist. Some of his people aren’t cartoonish at all: A few portraits have the smeared, lurid, near-violent quality associated with DeKooning. Manzueta, who died last year well before he had a chance to grow old, had the self-confidence and omnivorous appetites of a prodigy. If there was an avenue of self-expression open to him, he was going to try to navigate it.

It is, however, the stick figures and smiley faces that he was best known for when he was alive, and it’ll be those same figures that guarantee his reputation now that he’s no longer around to guide us through the maze of his output. These are the rawest encounters with Manzueta’s muse available, and they speak of his trepidation, his courage, his sense of aloneness in a cold and impersonal world and his belief in the mutability of identity, particularly gender identity. Those who remember Manzueta’s excitable youth recall an artist who tore hard at the uniform of masculinit, and who, through participation in the regional arts scene, freed himself from some of its stifling restrictions. In his heyday in the 1990s and early ’00s, Hamlet Manzueta was a visible figure on both sides of the Hudson: a drag queen, a reveler, a neighborhood character, a public access television host, an ambassador of queerness in a place as gay-friendly as Jersey City. Most of the art in the “One Year After” show is from this period, and it captures the struggle for self-assertion of a Latin American transplant whose ethnicity and sexuality always marked him as an outsider even when he was (as he often was) the life of the party.

The Art House Gallery isn’t a big one, but they’ve still mounted a show of considerable depth: one that presents Manzueta in full color and celebrates his life alongside his art. There’s a prominent picture, for instance, of Manzueta in the guise of Dolores, a drag persona replete with exaggerated makeup, clothing, and expressions commensurate with the Downtown scene in the gay ‘90s. With wall space limited, Art House has compiled scores of Manzueta’s sketches in a series of books; one of these traces the transition of a glum man who looks rather like the artist into a pretty woman. These booklets contain the artist’s fixations and his particular worldview: boys in ill-fitting Napoleon hats, girls with unreadable faces, gender fluidity, style elements and cultural signifiers linking Manzueta’s work to the tradition of Latin American cartoon drawing. It’s fascinating, but it feels a bit like a cheat code to the more significant paintings on the wall: a turn to the back of the textbook to steal a glance at the answer key.

Hamlet Manzueta courtesy Art House Productions

It’s possible to put too fine a point on all of this. Manzueta’s human figures may well be self-portraits of a sort, but they operate just as well as sketches of neighbors or fictional characters or emotional states. In an odd way, Dolores was Manzueta at his most conventional since he presented himself in accordance with the drag styles of the time. His pictures of women conformed to no similar expectation. Instead, these were visions conjured from his own personal chase after the feminine. This pursuit brought the best out of the painter: His finest works are all representations of girls. These include the line drawings of optimistic but fragile characters (including one in a turtle shell) and the more sophisticated images, too, including a wild sweep of red paint that manages to capture the elegance of a party dress. Some of his women barely have faces, but they all have symbolic significance: The first piece in the show is a girl with arms protectively in front of her, besieged on all sides by thick green and brown vertical stripes. It’s unsettling, but defiant, too.

After he became sick, Manzueta’s pace slowed. By necessity, this makes “One Year After” a turn of the clock back to a prior era of local art — one that wasn’t so long ago but which feels distinct from the one we presently inhabit. Hamlet Manzueta came to prominence at a time when queerness and pan-Americanism were emerging as dominant forces in Jersey City’s artistic production. He was, in many ways, the perfect artist for the moment: a gender nonconforming polymath who never forgot his Dominican heritage. The story of art in Hudson County can’t be told without him. Yet as “One Year After” shows, his best work transcends the moment in which it was made, and it transcends identity categories, too. It does what all good art does even after the artist is gone: It keeps resonating.

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Tris McCall’s First JC Fridays of 2020 Roundup


In theory, JC Fridays means free arts events of all types. The organizers of the festival promise music and live performance and film and poetry. That’s no fib: All of that stuff is on the calendar at jcfridays.com, which you should check out immediately.

But in practice, JC Fridays is a visual arts celebration and a quarterly echo of the annual Artist Studio Tour that has defined the cultural life in this town for decades. There are more art openings and gallery events listed on the JC Fridays site than all other options put together. This means it’s a fine excuse to run all over Jersey City, taking in as much visual art as you can stand.

For instance, if you’ve never been to the Fine Arts Gallery on the Saint Peter’s University campus, this coming JC Fridays is giving you a good reason to do just that. “Forged in Fabric” collects the works of three Jersey artists each of whom are engaged in the sort of innovation that has made modern fiber art a plush alternative to traditional painting and sculpture. Mollie Thonneson makes translucent, pennant-like pieces from repurposed lingerie; the result is very pretty and outrageously feminine. Christine Barney’s sculptures dance on the intersection between sleek fabric and cool glass.

Then there’s Anne Trauben, whose consistently mysterious work feels like a map of emotional states traced in loops and sags of string. Her pieces in “Forged in Fabric” are assembled from scarves and ribbons, whorls of yarn and electrical cord, suspended lightbulbs and at least one pom-pom that appears to have been deconstructed from the inside. These are discrete works, but they’re all shown together, touching, overlapping and blending into each other. It’s one complete thought in several segments, and it hangs on the wall like a net for the unwary. (5–7 p.m. on the fifth floor of the Mac Mahon Student Center, 47 Glenwood Ave., saintpeters.edu/fineartsgallery.)

A few blocks east on Summit Avenue, SMUSH Gallery follows up the sensuous “Heart Echoes” show with another single-artist abstract exhibition. Marta Blair, the artist behind “Heart Echoes,” is an Inwood resident without many deep ties to Jersey City; Myssi Robinson, by contrast, danced with the Nimbus company for three years and has performed at other spaces around town, including Jersey City Theatre Center and SMUSH. She’s a visual artist as well as a performer, and “ìīíïîinches,” her solo show, opens tonight. It’s a good match: Katelyn Halpern, the curator at SMUSH, is a dancer, too, and she’s already shown that she recognizes kinetic visual art when she sees it. I expect a show of considerable emotional velocity.  (6–10 p.m. at SMUSH Gallery, 340 Summit Ave., smushgallery.com)

Hamlet Manzueta was another artist who was deeply embedded in the local scene – until he wasn’t. The Dominican-born Manzueta, who died in the winter of 2019, was a big personality: a drag queen, a designer, and a lover of life. He’s remembered for his public access television show “The Pot,” which was silly business in the best possible way, and for his drag characters, too, and he’s survived by his visual art, which manages to radiate innocence and trepidation in equal measure.

Manzueta’s work is liminal in the sense that it does speak to the experience of queerness and otherness in a contemporary society that still isn’t comfortable with either, but mostly it’s an expression of a singular personality that doesn’t fall squarely into any particular identity category. “One Year After,” a show curated by Andrea McKenna at the Art House Gallery, is a more than just a show of Manzueta’s paintings. It’s a memorial to a man whose spirit is missed in a town in which playfulness is often in short supply. Technically, this show doesn’t launch until Saturday, but Art House is doing a sneak preview of the exhibition for JC Fridays. The Gallery is only open for an hour, so act fast. (6–7 p.m. at AHP Gallery at the Cast Iron Lofts, 262 17th St., arthouseproductions.com.)

McKenna’s own work is on display elsewhere. At Eonta Space, her somber, drape-like paintings of female forms engulfed in color fields of rust red and institution green are juxtaposed with Cheryl Gross’s vibrant drawings of endangered animals. “Commit to Memory: The Precipice of Extinction” has been up since the beginning of February, and it remains one of the most provocative visual art experiences around town — and an echo of the thunderous, inspiring Federico Uribe “Animalia” show that landed with fanfare at the Montclair Art Museum last month. (6–10 p.m. at EONTA Space, 34 Dekalb Ave., eontaspacenj.com). 

“Commit to Memory” is the cry of the natural world sliding toward desolation; “Exquisite Logic” teases out the humanity lurking in the belly of the machine. Pat Lay’s clever work begins with an image of a computer processor or electronic component. From there, she mirrors it, colors it and manipulates it until it achieves spiritual overtones reminiscent of Asian devotional art. Lay calls some of the images in her show “digital mandalas,” and that’s not a misleading description. They’re meditations on symbols and patterns with long histories symbols and patterns that follow humanity around no matter how deep into the technological murk we go.

The Pat Lay show marks the maiden voyage of the Dvora Pop-Up Gallery at the Oakman Condominiums in the Powerhouse Arts District. When the District ordinance passed many years ago, it was spaces like Dvora that advocates were envisioning accessible street-level galleries with works visible to passersby. For the moment, the pop-up is getting booked by people who were around Jersey City during the Arts District fight: Jim Pustorino and Anne Trauben of the Drawing Rooms space in Marion. (Yes, that’s the same Anne Trauben I wrote about earlier; Jersey City rewards tirelessness.) They know their history and have a sense of what’s at stake. The interior of Dvora is a bit raw, and industrial, too, but that suits Pat Lay’s computer dreams extremely well. From the sidewalk through the plate glass windows of the Dvora space, the works look like Persian rugs designed by artificial intelligence. That’s a compliment. (6–8 p.m., at Dvora, 160 First St., drawingrooms.org/dvora-gallery).

Lay’s work stood out at the juried segment of the Art Fair 14C, too. Robinson Holloway, the director of the Art Fair, also runs the Village West Gallery in the shadow of White Eagle Hall, and for JC Fridays she’s turned the space over to a four-person roster of arts organizers with a subtly provocative aesthetic that would have fit in perfectly at 14C. I’m most interested in “Art of the Curators” because of the presence of Anonda Bell, a Newark-based artist whose immersive cut-paper panoramas, often affixed directly to the wall, genuinely merit a comparison to Kara Walker. The slyly-titled “The Suburbs at 4 a.m.,” which she presented at Ramapo College a few years ago, reimagines the sleepy Jersey hinterlands as a forest of domestic junk thick enough to provide a hiding place for an imaginative woman. I’d expect something similar from Bell at Village West tonight. (7–9 p.m., at Village West, 331 Newark Ave, villagewestgallery.com).

“Gemini Moon” by Katia Bulbenko

Finally, curator Kristen DeAngelis, another 14C organizer and former proprietor of the now-shuttered 107 Bowers Gallery in the Heights, is once again making good use of the atrium at the Majestic Condominiums. Katia Bulbenko is one of those artists who splits the difference between painting and sculpture: Her pieces are multi-level agglomerations of colorful wood strips and silk scraps. They’re calling the show “Fragments/Reassemblage,” and once re-assembled, these fragments are presented like bouquets.  I’m romantic enough to find that sort of thing irresistible, and if you’ve read this far, I reckon you are, too.  I’ll see you around town tonight. (6– 8 p.m., Majestic Theater Condominiums, 222 Montgomery St.)

 

Header: “Pink Circles” by Myssi Robinson

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Curtain Up on Vibrant Theater Scene in Jersey City


Is Jersey City becoming the Garden State version of Manhattan’s West Village?

That’s the opinion of one entertainment expert anyway.

John McEwen, executive director of the New Jersey State Theatre Alliance, believes that Jersey City is offering something special on stage as well as in music and art.

“There’s something there for everybody,” McEwen says, “due in large part to exciting cultural offerings.

“The heartbeat there is similar to what you might find in the Village in New York. There’s a young, vibrant feeling there. The city’s image has turned around quite a bit, artists are finding homes, theater organizations are cropping up and doing unique work that fits into that vibe. I do hear a lot of people talking about the arts in Jersey City. Art is making that city tick. A lot of businesses are moving in, there’s a sense of pride in the residents, and that will only grow in time.”

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, Jersey City was home to professional vaudeville houses, like the old eight-tier Majestic Theatre that once stood opposite City Hall, where even New Yorkers trooped to see luminaries like W.C. Fields, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice, and George M. Cohan tread the boards.

But what—at least for now—may be missing in terms of infrastructure and top-name billing is being compensated for by the vibrancy and innovation of the many theatrical companies and their offerings.

Whether it’s the current Art House multimedia production of Reid Farrington’s A Christmas Carol or Speranza Theatre Company’s Women’s Writer Series or Jersey City Theater Center’s politically tinged Lines in the Dust, local stage groups are daring to push the boundaries.

As city Cultural Affairs Director Christine Goodman sees it, these and other local companies are delivering “fresh, vibrant, immersive, and original new takes on timeless tales.”

It’s that kind of theatrical fare that’s more likely to draw regional audiences than not, Goodman says. “You can only see the Rockettes so many times before wanting to see something different, and the work being produced here is different and exciting, and it’s something we’re proud of.”

That being said, the companies that are making a go of it now didn’t pop up overnight: It took each of them time to find and secure performance space, a distinct identity and audience, and monetary support before they could start to breathe and contemplate a sustainable future.

For Olga Levina, co-founder and artistic director of Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC), the long and winding path to Jersey City began in Belarus where she “grew up with a love for theater” fostered by her mother, a professional actress.

She and her nonprofit company (founded in 2006) are located on the second floor of a converted warehouse at 339-345 Newark Ave. that houses a 1,500-square-foot flex-performance space, a black box theater, an art gallery, and 10 private art studios all supported by an annual operating budget of $250,000.

JCTC’s mission, according to Levina, is to stage “political” theater and other arts events by developing a “thematic series concept … global in scope and relevant to the community.” In addition to plays, JCTC puts on arts shows, dance performances, and readings. Themes the company explores include justice, happiness, origins, vanity, borders, disruption, and fear.

Levina has hosted groups from Italy, Slovakia, Poland and Spain along with regional artists. JCTC’s most recent theatrical offering, Lines in the Dust, by Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Nikkole Salter, was co-produced with New Jersey City University and was a contemporary look at race, class and inequality in public education.

Another upcoming JCTC production, Run-On Sentence, by New Jersey playwright Stacie Lents, is about women in prison. Lents based her work on her experience working with incarcerated women through Prison Performing Arts of St. Louis, Mo.

From its humble beginnings in 2001 in a makeshift space at the (now-demolished) St. Francis Hospital in Hamilton Park, to its roomy digs at Cast Iron Lofts on 17th St., Art House has established itself as a steadfast producer of performing and visual arts.

“A Christmas Carol” courtesy Art House Productions

Among the more recent stage productions it has hosted are The Box Show featuring writer/performer Dominique Salerno and no fewer than 30 characters; The Artemisia’s Intent, created and performed by The Anthropologists, depicting—largely through movement—the life, work and words of 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi; and Reid Farrington’s A Christmas Carol, a co-production of Art House and Foxy Films, described as a “live mash-up of nearly every movie version of the Dickens piece ever made.”

“We present work that straddles the accessible and the avant-garde,” said Art House Executive Director Meredith Burns. The company’s focus, she said, is “to find diverse works by women and artists of color wherever possible.” Theatrical pieces like A Christmas Carol that feature projections and multi-media effects are also invited. “A lot of our pieces have that bent,” Burns said.

The non-profit venture, which employs two full-time staffers and runs on a yearly operating budget that Burns puts at “just under $500,000,” also sponsors “JC Fridays,” a quarterly seasonal arts festival that features between 30 and 50 events at different venues citywide;  comedy and dance festivals; and INKubator New Play Festival that invites submissions of new works by emerging playwrights from which six are picked for production every May.

Art House is on schedule for yet another move in fall 2021 to the new residential tower going up at 184 Morgan St., just one-half block from the Grove Street PATH Station. There it will hold forth with a 99-seat flex-box theater, art gallery, and administrative offices.

Two other local theater companies that use various performance venues are Speranza Theatre Company and No Dominion Theatre Co.

Speranza has two full-time and one part-time employee and operates  from Journal Square with a $50,000 annual budget.  The company’s mission is “to create thought-provoking collaborative theater centered on women’s issues, providing an opportunity for artists, particularly females, to share their voices through challenging and entertaining theater based in honesty and truth.” They have been around since 2008.

Heather Wahl, Speranza’s founding artistic director, said the company’s priority is to hire 50% or more women artists to perform, write and/or design. “I don’t think a lot of theater companies have our focus,” she said. “Most of what we do is original work primarily by women.”

Among those is Diana Basmajian, whose works Seasoned and Foodies were produced by Speranza recently.

Wahl said Speranza’s biggest challenge is “finding people of color” to participate. “That voice has been missing, and that was disappointing,” she said.

Despite having no permanent home, “Jersey City welcomed us right away,” Wahl said. Both Art House and JCTC made available their spaces to Speranza and the company has also performed in local colleges, eateries, galleries and even the historic Apple Tree House on Van Wagenen Avenue. “We created collaborations that have helped us grow and kept our overhead low,” said Wahl.

Courtesy No Dominion Theatre Co.

No Dominion co-founder and artistic director Michael Joel said the company (which takes its name from the Dylan Thomas poem “And death shall have no dominion”) sprang from an undertaking by several Montclair State University alums (himself included) to form a theatrical troupe.

Joel and No Dominion co-founder and executive director Kaitlin Overton believe that original theater is the way to go to promote new works in the New Jersey/New York City region. “By cross-collaborating with and fostering artists of multiple unique mediums, we are able to create the type of work that engages, inspires, and thrills diverse audiences,” they say. Much of that work, said Joel, has taken on a political flavor, “given the current state of affairs.”

Registered as a nonprofit in 2015, the group has done story slams citywide as part of the NEA Big Read program and “things sort of snowballed from there,” Joel said. The company recently partnered with McCarter Theatre Center and Princeton Public Library to bring a “story lounge” there and created a theatre slam at JCTC, where it is in residency.

For the new year, the company has big plans: an original opera in the summer and a six-hour political drama penned by Joel that, he said, will be “largely based on the 2016 [presidential] election” in November.

Another theater group, JCity Theater, has been around for over ten years staging a combination of plays by known playwrights such as David Mamet and works by emerging writers. They are also known for their annual holiday show A Tuna Christmas.  Unfortunately, as the founders Clay and Sandy Cockrell are currently on vacation off the grid, Jersey City Times was unable to make contact with them.

Gina Hulings, director of the Hudson County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs and Tourism Development, said she’s buoyed by the current theatrical scene in Jersey City. Her office provides matching funds for state Council on the Arts grants awarded local theater groups. “It’s a very exciting time,” Hulings said, particularly with the predominance of original works being presented locally. “We’re witnessing a resurgence in the arts.”

For example, Hulings said, the recent restoration of the old White Eagle Hall on Newark Avenue has afforded Jersey City a space for presenting special arts-related events and, she added, the county “is finalizing a 10-year cultural development plan” to pinpoint other opportunities for “finding a host facility or pop-up location” that could support theatrical ventures.

Header: Photo courtesy of No Dominion Theatre Co.

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Art Review: Mindshapes


Just as realism is frequently touched by the fantastic, abstraction is rarely total. Even non-figurative art is made from materials, and those materials often have strong connotations. Art House Productions is calling its new abstract show Mindshapes, which suggests a private, insular experience, something quiet, untethered to the rhythms of the practical world. Yet this exhibition, which runs through December 1 at the Art House’s small but handsome gallery, is anything but.

The two artists in Mindshapes make work that gestures emphatically toward the audience—work that, while abstract, feels deeply engaged with external forces. This is art that takes the viewer by the arm; it has things to show you, and once it grabs you, it doesn’t let go easily. Should you feel the need for a dash of hot pink to liven up the cold November days, direct yourself to 262 17th Street between Jersey and Coles. (The opening reception for Mindshapes is on Saturday, November 2, from 7-9 p.m.)

Srebriansky

While their pieces would never be confused with each other’s, Méïr Srebriansky and Geraldine Neuwirth do share certain crowd-pleasing proclivities: bold use of color, impressive scale, swirling lines, layering of materials, and a driving determination to break the flat, two-dimensional plane. If these are mindshapes, the minds that birthed them are fevered indeed. The work constantly threatens to leave the frame behind—and sometimes does achieve that weightless quality of wall art that defies rectangularity and insists on its own boundaries.

Neuwirth achieves this effect by stacking layers of cut-out paper, some of it painted, some of it scribbled upon, and creates distance between the sheets with the help of tiny glued supports that you won’t notice until you’ve stared at her pieces for a minute or two. Srebriansky uses resin, that shiny, plasticky, Koons-y favorite of modern sculptors, as if it were paint, slathering it on in thick washes. Sometimes the blobs of resin seem to have been extruded from the pieces themselves, or perhaps from a resin-pumping machine hidden behind their flattish surfaces. Neuwirth’s art feels humble and home-spun, even when it’s huge; Srebriansky’s feels industrial, tailored, and precise, even when he’s trying to make a mess. These works want to leap from the walls and meet, and shake hands, or dance together, in the middle of the gallery.

Both artists identify as New Yorkers, but Neuwirth maintains studio space in the huge MANA Contemporary complex at the western end of Newark Avenue. Unlike Srebriansky, whose paintings often have the skyscraper-glass shimmer of the Big Apple, Neuwirth works in a style that I associate deeply with Jersey City: busy, bold-colored collages, artfully imbalanced, tactile, daring the mischievous viewer to paw the art. Neuwirth, in the crammed Jersey City tradition, leaves very little blank space—her collages push hard against the corners of their frames. The top layer of paper hovers above the others as if it’s suspended there by sheer belief, and if it’s not exactly accurate to call these works sculptures, it is right to say that they’re built rather than painted. Abstract they may be, but their assembly suggests many things: threaded underpasses and overpasses, the sun high above a chaotic landscape, an architect’s most provocative model. Like many other artists who have worked in Hudson County, Neuwirth seems to be responding to the never-ending network of roads, the adaptive reuse of buildings, the overwritten neighborhoods, the constant, hungry, on-the-fly reconstruction that dominates public life. These are mind-scapes for sure, but ones that resonate strongly with the post-industrial zone that the Art House, and MANA, are currently located in.

Neuwirth’s work doesn’t advertise its constructed quality; Srebriansky’s work leads with it. In one of his most arresting contributions to the show, a roughly-shaped six pointed star outlined in bright red resin crouches over a part of the rectangular artwork that appears to have been ripped away. The rest of the painting (and this is, indeed, painting) consists of bright, overlapping splashes of resin that cover each other and ripple over contours like melted wax. Like Neuwirth, he’s attracted to arresting, near-dayglo colors: the pinks, magentas, and chartreuses of finger-paints or Play-Doh cylinders. He drafts figures on the chilly skin of his pieces: cartoon characters, greenery, a benign-looking pink pattern that, upon closer examination, resembles bomb detonations. The handling of resin here borders on the virtuosic, but he’s made room in his works for ordinary spray paint and acrylic, too; combined with the metallic, near-reflective quality of the resin, this strongly suggests the fronts of buildings on Downtown streets, impassive, yet decorated enthusiastically by graffiti artists. This is art that could only have been created in an urban context—in particular, in a city experiencing the kinetic forces of upheaval and rapid redevelopment.

The big pieces in Mindshapes are the ones most likely to get attention, but some of this show’s deepest rewards come from their modest-sized cousins. On an overhanging wall next to Neuwirth’s biggest contributions, six interrelated images are stacked vertically, from the floor to the ceiling. In their lighter wooden frames, these breathe a little easier, and feel a little more survivable, than Neuwirth’s more explosive pieces. Srebriansky’s style, too, scales well to a smaller size. My favorite work in this entire show was a simple study in blue resin, with a wave of dripping white threatening to swamp it from beneath. Its immediate neighbor is a flattish rectangle sporting layer after layer of resin in different colors. We know this because Srebriansky has pockmarked the piece, revealing a rainbow of gobstopper colors beneath the white surface. It has some of the quality of a dented car door, and it has an emotional intensity that many of Srebriansky’s larger, more imposing paintings lack.

These smaller Srebriansky pieces hang near the large gallery windows that overlook 17th Street. Across the street is a vacant lot on which a new building is sure to sprout soon; across the lot, a banner welcomes prospective buyers to the Cast Iron Lofts. There’s no great discontinuity in feel between the work of Srebriansky and Neuwirth and the scene on the other side of the glass, and this can’t entirely be attributed to this show’s occasional resemblance to street art. It’s also because, abstract as these artists’ works are, they’re also responding to volcanic forces that are remaking urban space on both sides of the Hudson. Transformation on this scale is liable to seep into your dreams, mold your mindshapes, and find expression in big, anxious, lurid pieces that speak volumes.

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