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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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Gallery Listing Updated: Eighteen Places in Jersey City to See an Art Show


The first JC Fridays of 2020 is upon us, which means it’s time to survey the city and amend our gallery rundown accordingly.  We’re pleased to report that there is at last a second street-level art space in the city’s designated arts district. For the moment, Dvora is getting called a “pop-up gallery,” which doesn’t sound too permanent, but we’ll take what we can get.  We’re also adding a pair of downtown spaces in the Village neighborhood; that’s become something of an arts district, too, even if it’s an unofficial one. Welcome to our list, 313 Gallery and the Italian Education and Cultural Center at Casa Colombo.

JC Fridays stands as our quarterly reminder that Jersey City is a visual arts town. It’s what we do well, and it’s a comparative advantage the city has over other municipalities in the Garden State (and beyond). We love to look at pictures and sculptures and photographs and off-the-wall installations. The annual Jersey City Art and Studio Tour turns the entire town into a giant open gallery. While there are plenty of other cultural events on the calendar, JCAST feels like the anchor of local culture.

Funny, then, that we still don’t have a town museum to call our own. For a while we did, and the husk of the Jersey City Museum still squats unloved on the corner of Montgomery and Monmouth. It’s a testament to the resiliency of the arts in Jersey City that the closure of the museum — it shut its doors in 2010 — didn’t lay a glove on the local scene. (The loss of the arts center at 111 First Street is another story altogether and outside the scope of a roundup.) There are still many, many places to catch outstanding art shows, same as ever.

By no means is this meant to be a comprehensive list. It’s a rundown of rooms where we’ve seen special things, but there are many others, and we’ll add to this page as exciting new places open. Launching an art gallery is easier than opening a restaurant or a music venue: All you really need is wall space, a source of light and open-minded visitors. We expect that the gallery scene in Jersey City will remain in flux and fans of the unpredictable that we are, that’s exactly how we like it.

Art House Productions

One of the adamantine institutions of Jersey City culture, Art House Productions has been entertaining and enlivening the city since 2001. Over the years, the location of the “house” itself has moved, but they’ve found a home in the demilitarized zone between the Holland Tunnel and the Hoboken border. (They’re in the building with the Bowie mural on it, naturally.) While Art House is most closely associated with performances and festivals, they’ve got a lovely gallery there, too. The late 2019 joint exhibition of works by Méïr Srebriansky, a painter in resin, and Geraldine Neuwirth, a provocative paper cutter, was a bold splash of color and kinetic energy.  (262 17th St., www.arthouseproductions.org)

Casa Colombo

The exterior of Casa Colombo has been unchanged since it was first built by Italian immigrants nearly a century ago. Insofar as the neighborhood that surrounds it is still called the Italian Village, the presence of the Casa Colombo is a pretty big reason for that handle.  The inside of Casa Colombo contains a recreation of a typical Italian immigrant’s bedroom in the 1930s and a room dedicated to local Italian-American history. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also home to a sharp-looking and resolutely modern gallery where artists affiliated with the cultural center mount monthly shows. “Facets of Women,” an exhibition timed to coincide with Women’s History Month, opened yesterday and will run until the 31st of March. (380 Monmouth St., www.casacolombo.org.)

Curious Matter

Some galleries announce their presence in a neighborhood with a bang and a shout, and some address passersby in an alluring whisper. Curious Matter has been on Fifth Street between Coles and Jersey for more than a decade, but it still feels like a secret. Part of that is the building itself, one of those downtown row houses that’s pretty as a jewelry box. It promises delights inside, and again and again, Curious Matter has delivered with shows that are deeply intelligent, often beautiful and entirely consistent with the gallery’s name. Last spring’s “To Some Point True and Unproven” was a soft-spoken, physics-minded stunner. More like that one will surely follow. (272 5th St., www.curiousmatter.org)

Deep Space

Cornelison Avenue, the western limit of a large industrial zone tucked away in Bergen-Lafayette, doesn’t get too much foot traffic. But Deep Space Gallery is making Cornelison a destination: Their shows are audacious, vital, thought provoking and pleasantly frequent. This artist-run space has been one of the most active in town, regularly hosting first-rate, world-class shows in relatively humble digs. Last summer’s “Love Triangle” was a mesmerizing geometric delight that, quite frankly, blew most contemporaneous New York museum exhibitions away. Deep Space is a quintessential Hudson County gallery, and if you’re interested in local art at all, you owe it to yourself to visit. (77 Cornelison Ave., www.deepspacejc.com)

Drawing Rooms

Just down Newark Avenue from Mana is the Topps Industrial Building: a little grungier, a little greyer, a little less striking, a little easier to overlook. But the old warehouse contains a quietly impressive gallery with a long history of excellent shows. Like many institutions (and people!) in Jersey City, Drawing Rooms recently moved from downtown to the environs of Journal Square, and the gallery has made the most of its bigger space. Its late 2019 show “Cosmic Love,” felt like a callback to the freewheeling days of the Arts Center at 111 First Street and featured a dazzling suspended sculpture in string by Maggie Ens, one of 111’s leading lights. (926 Newark Ave., www.drawingrooms.org)

Dvora Pop-Up Gallery

There’s more than one place in town to enjoy the distinctive Drawing Rooms aesthetic sensibility.  The Drawing Rooms curators are booking exhibitions at the newest space in the Powerhouse Arts District: a gallery on the ground floor of the Oakman Condominiums. Dvora is rather rough-hewn, with exposed concrete pillars, fluorescent lights, and exposed ductwork in the ceiling. Yet the white-walled industrial vibe suited the space’s maiden show perfectly: Pat Lay’s “Exquisite Logic,” a search for the spiritual core hidden inside the computer chip. A show from the equally cerebral Bruce Halpin will follow in mid-March.  (160 First St., drawingrooms.org/dvora)

Eonta Space

At the tail end of a stubby and otherwise undistinguished cul-de-sac in McGinley Square squats an old taxi depot that has been seized by art imps and transformed into one of Jersey City’s genuine secret playgrounds. The gallery abuts an old cemetery, but there’s nothing funereal about what happens inside: Experimentation and liveliness is the rule. Last autumn, local conjurer Bayard transformed Eonta into a Seussian fairyland populated by giant sculptures festooned with thousands of ribbons. He encouraged visitors to hug them. They really did seem to hug back. (34 DeKalb Ave., eontaspacenj.com)

Fine Arts Gallery

St. Peter’s University maintains its art gallery in a wide corridor on the fifth floor of the Mac Mahon Student Center, which means you’ll probably bypass several student lounges as well as cafeterias, rec rooms, and undergraduates in various states of study in order to get there. But since the center is open nearly every afternoon, it’s actually one of the easier galleries in town to visit, and the incongruity of the setting will melt away once you sink into the show. The playful “Reprocess,” a recent sculptural exhibition featuring the works of local artists Jodie Fink and Robert Lach, made imaginative use of repurposed industrial materials that evoked Hudson County’s manufacturing past. (47 Glenwood Ave., saintpeters.edu/fineartsgallery)

MANA Contemporary

MANA feels like the big kid on the block: For all intents and purposes, it’s a contemporary arts museum even if it doesn’t call itself one. It’s huge, it’s multifaceted, it’s got its own parking lot and it’s one of the only arts spaces in town where you’ll be able to see multiple exhibitions in a single visit. It’s also the rare local arts institution with branches in other cities: There’s a MANA Miami and a MANA in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. But the Jersey City MANA is the flagship, and it has certainly made an asset out of the giant former tobacco factory where it resides. Tip: An outstanding, perennially intriguing individual gallery within the huge Mana complex belongs to Scott Eder, who specializes in the art of comic books. (888 Newark Ave., www.manacontemporary.com)

Meagher Rotunda Gallery

Normally, we wouldn’t encourage art appreciators to visit City Hall. We’re not cruel like that. But 280 Grove Street is architecturally significant, both inside and outside, and its dedicated gallery in the Meagher Rotunda really does put on fine, community-centered shows. While it can be tough for the art to compete with the wrought iron balustrade, wooden wainscoting and colored tile floor of the space, the curators have a long track record of making it work. Better yet, the Meagher Rotunda is one of the most active gallery spaces in town: They’ve got a new show nearly every month. Should you happen to see any politicians while you’re visiting, just avert your eyes and concentrate on the art. (280 Grove St., www.jerseycityculture.org)

MoRA

Once called the C.A.S.E., short for Committee for the Absorption of Soviet Emigres, the MoRA is a small but rigorously curated museum of offbeat Russian art. That means the emphasis here has always been on art that wasn’t sanctioned by the Soviet state and was, either implicitly or explicitly, critical of totalitarianism. But MoRA isn’t strictly Russian. An expansive summer show highlighted new works by Korean artists alongside their European and American counterparts. The MoRA is located in one of the prettiest buildings in Paulus Hook, and that’s saying something. Note: Members get in for free; there’s a recommended $10 donation for everybody else. (80 Grand St., www.moramuseum.org)

NJCU Visual Arts Gallery & Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery

The biggest educational institution in the city maintains two of its most underrated art galleries. The Visual Arts Gallery, which really could use a snappier name, maintains a neat balance of shows by luminaries, inspired locals, students and members of the New Jersey City University faculty. The Lemmerman Gallery, its kid cousin, is located in the most architecturally significant building on campus: austere Hepburn Hall. There is also a fine art space on the campus of Hudson County Community College: the Benjamin Dineen and Dennis Hull Gallery. Go back to school; there’ll be something to see. (100 Culver Ave., www.njcu.edu)

Novado Gallery

When activists first conceptualized the Powerhouse Arts District in the ’00s, it was spaces like Novado Gallery they were envisioning: roomy enough to host a yoga class, and friendly, active, imaginative and resplendent with architectural features that link the space to the neighborhood’s industrial past. The gallery is one of the most active spaces in Hudson County, its monthly shows are always shrewdly curated and its hours (open five days a week) are generous by anybody’s standards. (110 Morgan St.,www.novadogallery.com)

Panepinto Galleries

70 Hudson Street looks like a bank. A nice bank, mind you, but not exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find any artistic ferment. But hey, bankers have always supported the arts (well, some of them, anyway), and the Panepinto Galleries gives those who aren’t involved in the financial services industry a reason to hang out on the Paulus Hook waterfront. The favored style runs toward abstract expressionism and that which you might associate with hotel lobbies and corporate atriums, but there are definitely exceptions. The recent show “Something Blue” featured blue paintings in various styles, and the effect was enveloping indeed. (70 Hudson St., www.panepintogalleries.com)

PRIME Gallery

PRIME is a real estate company with residential listings in Hoboken and the Heights; if you’re renting in Jersey City, there’s a decent chance you’ve worked with them before. They’ve also dedicated enough space to artwork in their sharply-appointed, brick-walled office, too, that it’s more than fair of them to call it a gallery. Many of the shows at PRIME have focused on local favorites like Kayt Hester, Ricardo Roig, and Robert Piersanti, names that’ll be familiar to those who’ve followed visual art in Hudson County for the past two decades. “Hands Up: A Campaign For Peace,” the current group show, is dedicated to Jahahd Payne and the victims of the Jersey City shootings.  (614 Palisade Ave., www.primegallery.art)

SMUSH Gallery

The SMUSH Gallery is owned and directed by a true multidisciplinary artist, and the bookings reflect her omnivorous tastes. The gallery in Journal Square has hosted dance ensembles, rock groups, comedians, a lesbian crafting circle, a weaving workshop, and probably many other things that have eluded our notice. But it’s also a really good, playful, and approachable space to see visual art, and it’s one that always seems to have something engaging going on. Last summer, they even fulfilled every gallerygoer’s deepest wish: Alex Pergament’s “TouchTouch” show let visitors feel the art that was on exhibit. It’s not called SMUSH for nothing. (340 Summit Ave., www.smushgallery.com)

313 Gallery

Behind a bright red door on a Downtown side street is the 313 Gallery, the exhibition space affiliated with the Jersey City Art School. JCAS, which offers classes to children and adults alike, is worth checking out for its impressive old-school printmaking machinery alone. The curators at 313 have the catholic tastes you’d associate with independent educators. But they’ve taken a particular interest in questions of local identity, and many of the shows they’ve mounted explore what it means to be from Jersey City and the New York metro area. The 2015 show “New Directions,“ a candid look at gentrification, continues to be relevant five years later. The recent “Rooftops and Reflections” was an exercise in pure Jersey love. (313 3rd St.,  facebook.com/313gallery).

Village West Gallery

Just a stone’s throw from White Eagle Hall is a lesser known cultural institution, but one that is in its quieter way just as impressive. The Village West Gallery is the first floor of a private home, one that has been renovated in part with wood reclaimed from the Arts Center at 111 First Street. It’s a room that demands from its visitors a certain meditative and thoughtful pace, a mood that “Slow Art,” the most recent show at the space, did plenty to reinforce. (331 Newark Ave., villagewestgallery.com)

Are you regularly hosting art exhibitions in Jersey City? Have you got something to add to the local conversation? If so, we want to hear from you. Let us know, and we’ll visit your gallery and add it to the guide.

 

Header: Courtesy MANA Contemporary

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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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Art Review: Pat Lay at the Dvora Pop-up Gallery


If you’ve ever had a computer spill its guts to you, you know what a shattering experience it can be. The surfaces of video cards and chipboards are great riddles in titanium, wire, and plastic. Dots and twisting parallel lines, bright colors and silent black rectangles: It’s all in there, hidden behind the screen you may be looking at right now. Run electricity through it, and the magic begins. But unless you’re an engineer, there’s very little chance that you understand the meanings of the markings on the chips and drives. They’re as inscrutable — and as beautiful — as hieroglyphics or cuneiform characters carved into rocks.

Many visual artists have been struck by the accidental aesthetic of electronic components. Few, however, have taken that interest quite as far as Pat Lay. Visiting “Exquisite Logic,” her show at the Dvora Pop-up Gallery in the Powerhouse Arts District, is a bit like stepping into a mainframe. Lay takes byzantine images of circuit boards, manipulates and enhances them, and goes large with them — sometimes as large as a tapestry or a Persian rug. Even the materials she uses to make her prints and collages have technical-sounding names: MDF cradled paper, Tyvek backing, metallic ink. Instead of handles, she’s assigned serial-codes to them: “B53K477-1,” “B54AAA0468B,” etc. To a non-artist, it’s all as arcane as a liturgy in Latin.

“DM422161212” by Pat Lay

From these elements, Lay has conjured something subtly familiar and maybe even deeply human. Lay calls many of these images “digital mandalas,” and many of them do display the symmetry and the near-tessellated quality associated with traditional Indian art. Modern mandalas are often used as relaxation tools, but for centuries they were associated with devotional practice. Here, the Buddha is gone missing, replaced by a microchip.

“Exquisite Logic” is not a simple statement about the loss of spiritual intensity amidst the rise of the machines. Pat Lay has far too much respect for computers for anything as vulgar as that. Rather, her work whispers about the way in which Techne always seems to draw on the symbolic language of religion. By tracing connections between motherboards and sacred painting, Silicon Valley and sadhana, Lay’s art brings the computer and the temple into alignment. Both are sites of magic and wonder. Both are favored by visionaries, enlightenment-seekers, and thrill-riders.

In order to achieve this effect, Lay goes heavy on eye-popping techniques: bright color on dark backgrounds, gradients, parallel lines and sharp geometric figures sheer scale. The opening images in “Exquisite Logic” are nearly eight feet tall, and they’ve been hung high on the wall; unframed, they curl a little at the sides as they scroll toward the gallery floor. The bigger images are rendered on Japanese kōzo paper, which imparts some of the airiness associated with Asian landscape art.

Some of these resemble obsessively decorated doors. Others are distinguished by a spine, running from the top to the bottom of the images. The verticality of these pieces suggests ascension; their texture and design keep them earthbound, tethered to artistic traditions. The pattern on “KB095-2” looks more than a little like those on a Navajo blanket. “CDS118 164020” sports stark turquoise fields reminiscent of batik. “B53K4771” comes on like the cover of a sci-fi paperback – something by Philip Dick, perhaps, about a portal into a digital world.

“DM624161212” by Pat Lay

The mandalas are smaller and quieter, but taken collectively, they’re no less immersive. These crisp, chilly squares feel like an encounter with an alien (perhaps artificial?) intelligence. It’s here where Pat Lay’s inspirations are clearest: The series of images called “Processor #1-6” are images taken straight from the bowels of a computer, balanced in the center of a grid and framed, a chessboard where Deep Blue always has home-field advantage. “DM610161212,” perhaps the most arresting of the mandalas, is a thick network of wires and chips straight from the circuit board. With the conduits in electric blue and the breakers in bright crimson, it could be a trippy still from a space opera: a view of a starship corridor seen through the infrared lenses of a Robocop.

Yet calling these images kaleidoscopic — evocative of sci-fi and the psychedelic symmetry of outer space flicks — doesn’t do them justice. The DMT daydreams of pieces like “DM423161212” are exciting, but they play a supplemental role; the callbacks to ancient Indian, Celtic, and Native American devotional art take the lead. It requires an artist of peculiar sensitivity to crack open a computer and find mandalas, crosses, and circles reminiscent of Himalayan sand paintings there. Lay may be on to something, even if it’s just our tendency to project our own technological aesthetic back on to artworks made by prior searchers for ultimate truth.

Although the tone is totally different, “Exquisite Logic” reminded me of the Zheng Guogu’s outstanding “Visionary Transformations” exhibition at MOMA PS1 last spring. Like Guogu, Lay is well aware of modern distortions that make apprehension of Buddhist art difficult. Like Guogo, she embraces those distortions and from them she spins some … well, we won’t say gold. Bitcoin would be more appropriate.

“Exquisite Logic” will be on view through March 12, and there’ll be a special event at the gallery for Jersey City Fridays. If you didn’t know that Dvora even existed, you’re not alone — until recently, I didn’t either. The space, which is raw but perfectly appropriate to an exhibition like this one, is right behind the big plate glass windows of an unused chamber on the first floor of the Oakman Condominium building (160 First St.). This is the premiere exhibition in the gallery, and it’s an impressive way to kick off. Presently, Dvora is programmed by the sharp-eyed people behind the Drawing Rooms gallery in the Marion neighborhood of Jersey City. When the Powerhouse Arts District was initially conceived, it was spaces like this one that arts advocates were imagining. We could use a few more like this one.

Pat Lay: Exquisite Logic
Dvora Gallery @the Oakman Condominiums
160 First Street
Showing until March 12
Special event for Jersey City Fridays
6-8 p.m., March 6
visit: www.drawingrooms.org/dvora-gallery.html

Header: “DM423161212” by Pat Lay

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Five Takeaways from the 14C Art Show


How would a hundred visual artists overhaul an upmarket hotel?  If you’ve ever wondered, your answer is currently at the Hyatt Regency in Exchange Place.  For the next two days, that hotel — or at least two floors of it —  belongs to painters, sculptors, photographers, thread-stitchers and canvas manipulators, lucid dreamers, arts organizers, all-purpose appreciators, and collectors looking to score an ideal piece. The second annual Art Fair 14C opens to the public at noon today and runs until 8 p.m., and if you haven’t had enough, they’ll be doing it again on Sunday from 12 until 6.  Tickets and weekend passes are available through the Eventbrite link at www.artfair14c.com.

The action takes place on the eighth and ninth floors, which means you’ll get an impressive look at the Hudson River between glances at artworks. The ninth floor of the hotel hosts a juried show of pieces by New Jersey artists; they’re all together in one grand exhibition gallery.  On the eighth floor, each room has been given over to a single artist, artist collective, or arts organization to arrange according to their whims. Many of these artists are also locals, but a few have come to Exchange Place from much farther away. Attendees are encouraged to meander down the halls of the hotel, probing these makeshift galleries one after another. It feels a bit like eavesdropping, a bit like party-crashing, and more than a little like urban exploration.

We headed to the Hyatt for a Friday night preview, and didn’t know what to expect. What we found was a grand, generous exhibition that, despite its size, was surprisingly coherent. Themes emerged: the beauty of the post-industrial environment and the repurposing of found objects, whimsy and good humor, depictions of streetscapes, roadways, bridges and girders, and, naturally, a copious amount of Jersey love. Here are a few other things we learned at this blowout event — one that’s a hoot to experience, and a quick way to understand the scope and depth of local visual art as well.

Artists really know how to redecorate a hotel room.  

The rooms at the Hyatt aren’t too big, but artworks often are. Exhibitors have had to get creative, and in so doing, they’ve managed to transform a corporate hotel into a treasure box of clever surprises. Bayard, the impish spirit behind local gallery Eonta Space, has hung one of his fluffy, huggable Seussian sculptures in a closet as if it was a particularly outré robe (another Bayard work waves hello to visitors on their way in to the hotel.) The bathroom of the NJCU Art Department pop-up gallery has been flooded with enough colored light to make it resemble a disco — and yes, the party extends to the bathtub.

Some of the most striking pieces in the entire fair have been simply lain on the beds like exhausted business travelers: Juichigatsu, an arts organization visiting from Tokyo, has propped up Nobuyuki Fukata’s virtuosic stitched portraits right there atop a queen mattress. No surface is safe from the artists’ imaginations.  Philippe Halaburda, a Brooklyn artist who organizes a confetti-rain of short rectangular strokes of paint into imaginary maps, encourages visitors to affix strips of tape to the window overlooking Jersey City. An hour after the doors opened, that window already looked like a crazy page from a fantasy atlas.

New Jersey artists love to represent New Jersey.

This you probably already knew.  But if by chance you didn’t, the 14C Art Fair — which is, after all, named for a Turnpike exit — ought to put you straight.  Perhaps I’m biased (I am), but I felt that the finest work in the fair was pure Jersey, and Jersey rendered with remarkable fidelity to the source. Tim Daly, a Hoboken painter with a powerful sensitivity to place, somehow squeezed grand, gorgeous images of the Meadowlands and the Pulaski Skyway in his narrow hotel room. The result was something like a Jersey panorama, with familiar images everywhere, and roads leading viewers deeper into the swamps.

“NJCRR Ferry Terminal” by Gary Godbee

The stark realism of Daly’s works was matched, stroke for stroke, by the extraordinary near-precisionist renderings of New Jersey landmarks by Studio 7 artist Gary Godbee. His large and handsome oil painting of the New Jersey Central Railroad ferry terminal was a show-stealer; it radiated pure pride, and that sense of unearthly symmetry usually found in pictures of British manor houses. Then there’s Daly’s strangely unnerving image of cars speeding past the Hope and Blairstown exit on Interstate 80 under a high sky crosshatched with contrails.  The combination of the automated and the bucolic, the machine-framed setting, the promise of escape, the overtones of surveillance, the environmentalist critique alongside the roar of the engine — all of it was pure Garden State.

Other artists were somewhat more allusive.  Loura Van Der Meule, who works in Jersey City, contributed a majestic but somewhat sorrowful portrait of the Powerhouse in oil pastel, its sides cracked and its smokestacks rising against a faint pink sky.  It’s an emotional image.  Yet it wasn’t quite as gripping as her remarkable painting of a sealed entrance to a low building, washed in the faded, institutional blue of Jersey industrial zones.  The Garden State means splashy landmarks, but just as surely, it means particular details that long-time residents will immediately recognize.

Nothing is quite as dreamlike as the built environment.

“Ossoryi 4” by Philippe Halaburda

“When I look at New York City, I see no curves,” said Halaburda of his kaleidoscopic renderings of color and shape.  Instead, Manhattan comes at the artist in right angles and sharp diagonals, pointed, jagged, and perhaps a bit accusatory, and it’s that emotional state that he rendered in his imaginary maps. Anne Finkelstein’s work is more figurative, but hardly less emotional: There’s a soul of abstraction in her paintings of orange construction-worker netting and shafts of light illuminating the off-white tiles of subway stairwells. Her city is brightly-colored, but shadowed, depopulated, but filled with the evidence of human activity.

Finkelstein shared a hotel room with West Orange artist Allan Gorman, who chases a similar aesthetic down darker alleys. Gorman is attuned to the symbolic resonances of windows and walls, and the play of sunlight and shadow on floors. His best work: an image of a single distant open door at the far end of an empty room, its jamb hot with light from an outside source. It could be a factory, or a house abandoned, or one waiting for an occupant. It looks like it has secrets. But it won’t give them up easily.

Some of the best pieces in the fair are in the Jersey juried exhibition – and they show a New Jersey that might not be familiar to visiting New Yorkers.     

Like Gorman, Judith Lieberman gets emotional mileage from a lit-up aperture in a wall. She shows us a house from the outside — snow swirls white against a background of blue twilight. Yet there’s a defiant orange trapezoid shaking a hot fist at the storm. There’s life inside. The dark is closing in, but the permanent flame of electricity will ward it away.

Lieberman has set this scene in Whitehouse Station, a small town connected to the metropolis by Route 22. Near Whitehouse and beyond, the terrain in the Garden State begins to get rougher as the coastal plain gives way to the hills and reservoirs of the West Jersey ranges. This is farmland, and some of the richest in the nation, too, rich enough to hang that famous nickname on the state. James Fiorentino makes that bounty manifest in a startling medium watercolor of a Flemington farmhouse that’s crisp as a photograph. The wooden barn has been battered by the elements, and the tree is withered and autumn-bare, but the impression that the painting gives is one of great solidity and near-permanence.  Like Lieberman’s dream of a winter’s night, this work speaks eloquently of perseverance.

But the best image in the entire Art Fair comes from a familiar source. Photographer Ed Fausty was once the bard of 111 First Street: His portraits of the old Lorillard factory brought its fragility (and the fragility of the community that worked there) to life in colors that were strange, rich, and unearthly.  He’s since decamped to Boonton, where he has a gallery; I’ve been delinquent and I haven’t visited yet. His contribution to 14C makes me want to get in the car immediately. Fausty has photographed a haunted street choked by trees, with the sky overhead slashed by telephone wires. As is often true with Fausty’s photographs, the composition is impeccable, and the tone is downright ominous. With typical Fausty frankness, he’s called it “Looking Down a Very Dark Road.” Sometimes, not much more needs to be said.

This is a collaborative effort from Jersey City’s arts leaders, who demonstrated that their visions are complementary.

The prime mover behind the 14C Arts Fair is Robinson Holloway, who runs the Village West Gallery abutting White Eagle Hall.  She was assisted by Kristin DeAngelis, former owner of the sadly lost 107 Bowers Gallery, and current curator at a pair of Silverman properties which regularly host shows. Many of the most successful pop-ups on the eighth floor were those connected to local galleries: Drawing Rooms, for instance, provided a full bedroom of delights, including three striking grey-and-white pieces by frequent exhibitor Jill Scipione. The Art House, one of the most reliable institutions in town, contributed an entertaining chamber of their own. Many of the exhibitors have studios at MANA Contemporary, and MANA staff was on hand on the ninth floor, distributing material.

Some of the best, and most visible, figures in regional art were present, too: Megan Klim, with her unsettling amalgams of wire, fiber, and rust, Theda Sandiford, with her energetic tangles of multicolored rope, Cheryl Gross and her lurid illustrations of animals, Mustart, with his visual provocation, impeccable sense of balance, and collision of spray paint and magazine clippings. At the Hyatt (of all places) they were singing in harmony; odd harmonies, sure, but odd is good. It’s premature, perhaps, to call this evidence of a movement, but something brilliant is blooming in this town, and 14C is another sign of its florescence. Visual art in Jersey City has a tone and a feel, and a sense of humor, and fierce regional pride. And for the next two days, it has a home on the waterfront.

Jersey City Times readers will receive a 50% discount on tickets by going here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/art-fair-14c-tickets-86837935603?discount=JCITYTIMES50

Art Fair 14C
Hyatt Regency Hotel
2 Exchange Place

Jersey City, NJ 07302

Hours
Saturday, 2/22: 12 – 8 p.m.
Sunday, 2/23: 12 – 6 p.m.

Header: “Geo Engineering Over Route 80” by Tim Daly

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Art Review: New Abstract Works by George Goodridge, Debra Lynn Manville, Orlando Reyes and Kati Vilim


Deep Space is an appropriate name for a gallery that focuses on new and unusual art. It’s all unexplored territory out there between the stars. Anything a space cadet might encounter in those vast reaches is bound to be strange and novel and worthy of scrutiny. There are other kinds of deepness too — intellectual depth, emotional depth, conceptual complexity and depth of vision — and Deep Space curators seem intent on creating an environment in which these kinds of creative activities can flourish. There’s also the way in which the name of the gallery describes its position on the map of Jersey City. Deep Space is technically located in the Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood, but it’s on the fringe of an industrial zone that has, so far, barely been touched by the great wave of redevelopment that has swept through this town. Their home is deep JC — a part of the city that isn’t included in the destination marketing.

Perhaps it should be. None of our cultural institutions are showing work any fresher or more vital than the paintings and sculptures that have recently been exhibited at Deep Space. If visual art is what Jersey City does best (and it is), Deep Space Gallery is right at the heart of local culture. Its owners have shown a pleasing commitment to affordability, encouraging those who aren’t collectors to dive in and buy a piece. Some excellent small canvases at the gallery’s recent “Gigantic Miniatures” show were priced as low as thirty to forty dollars.

Gallery owners Jenna Geiger and Keith Van Pelt have brought back two of the painters from “Gigantic Miniatures” for “Circle the Square”: Orlando Reyes, who’ll be immediately familiar to longtime followers of Jersey City art, and Debra Lynn Manville, who might not be. Reyes was the founder of 58 Gallery, a Downtown space with an offbeat aesthetic and a communitarian spirit that Deep Space shares. Manville runs a virtual gallery project called “1Million Diamonds” (1milliondiamonds.org) that champions abstract geometric work. They’re both participants in the local art scene, which is not uncommon for painters who exhibit at Deep Space.

Reyes and Manville are two sides of the square. The other participants in this well-balanced show are Kati Vilim, whose flat, interlocking fields of color align her work with Manville’s, and George Goodridge, whose twisting, pulling, and warping of canvas makes him as much a sculptor as a painter. Taken collectively, these four artists share an attraction to bold hues, striking shapes, and offbeat rhythms. But what really unites them is their tone. This work is cheerful but not overly so, playful and experimental but not ostentatiously so, gentle but never toothless. Like so much of “Gigantic Miniatures” — and so much of the best Jersey City art — these paintings are weird but welcoming.

“To Dream Of Paradise” by George Goodridge

The weirdest and the friendliest of the quartet is Goodridge, who dabs ameboid ellipses and perfect circles on canvases that have been stretched tight as a Navy bedsheet over balsa wood frames. The frames aren’t visible, but their effect certainly is: this isn’t unlike painting on a cloud or a partially melted marshmallow. Most artists’ focuses get sharper as their works shrinks in size; Goodridge is just the opposite. His vision is best realized in his larger pieces, which are so relentlessly pleasant that their scale never overwhelms the viewer. “The Complexity of Joy,” a sixty-nine-inch tall acrylic painting on a curved canvas, hangs over the show like a thought bubble stuffed with pleasant ideations. “To Dream of Paradise,” a smaller canvas, is a cooler cumulonimbus. It possesses the hovering quality common to Goodridge’s work. It drifts over the viewer, but it never imposes.

“Common Space” by Kati Vilim

Vilim’s paintings, too, feel like unanswered questions. There’s a surprising amount of action happening in these abstract, static panels. Her shapes often float on soft gray backgrounds: They’re curves that cling and repel each other like horseshoe magnets, dark Ls and cubes that lock together to form rectangular prisms, mysterious raven-black cutouts given dimension and a sense of heft by blue accents. Sometimes she makes her shapes leap off of the panels and jostle for position: In “Common Space,” a great blue hook appears to rise and slip atop a pink one. There’s a similar sense of crowding and vague unease in “Summer Blue Influence”: three large figures, tentatively touching, tucked into a tight frame. The most placid of these subtly turbulent panels is a single U composed of pastel-tinted color fields of plaster. It’s called “Something Like Happiness” — not all the way to contentment but an acceptable facsimile thereof.

“Havens” by Debra Lynn Manville

The sharp lines and crisp angles of Vilim’s paintings approach geometric abstraction. Debra Lynn Manville’s work goes all the way and even flirts a bit with the airlessness of corporate logo design. Fans of this style will recognize an enthusiastic practitioner with a steady hand for parallel lines, a good eye for gradients, and commitment to knockout colors. “Tysimmon,” which is painted on a wood panel, achieves a near-metallic shine, like the fender of an automobile under streetlights. “Usilia,” too, generates the illusion of curved space. Too rigorous and too precise to be called psychedelic, Manville’s work does lean toward the surreal: “Havens,” a leftover from the Miniatures show, is strangely suggestive of the plant-stuffed windows of a beachfront hotel.

Manville uses Flashe paint to produce a vinyl-like matte sheen. Reyes is after some attention-grabbing effects, too, and he finds them at the intersection of pigment and metal. By applying color to aluminum surfaces, he gets paint blots to open like flowers or corals. Tiny rivulets of color score these radiant circles of his. He achieves similar results on other surfaces, but the aluminum plates sing loudest. If you’re familiar with the artist, you’ll also be familiar with the effects, too, but even if you’ve seen them before, they retain their ability to startle. Walking past a wall of his paintings is a bit like a trip through a tulip garden: colors and contrasts, pinks and reds in bunches, bouquets generously bestowed, an overwhelming sense of plenty.

Technically, all of these painters are experimenting. They’re pushing at the boundaries of their styles, exploring the power of shape and color, taking chances, doing the sorts of things that an artist does when he or she is subject to the interstellar currents of deep space. Yet there’s so little sweat visible in “Circle the Square” that you may not even notice. All they ask of you is the same thing that all deep space cadets do: Have a little faith, detach from the mothership, and float.

Deep Space Gallery
Circle The Square
Work by George Goodridge, Debra Lynn Manville, Orlando Reyes, and Kati Vilim
77 Cornelison Ave.
On view until February 29

Header: “Origami Sea Owl” by Orlando Reyes

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Ibou Ndoye

Art Review: Ibou Ndoye and Adebunmi Gbadebo at NJCU


Painting on glass is tricky. Glass is not as forgiving as canvas or paper, and it stubbornly resists attempts by artists to convey texture. Yet when glass painting is done right, it shimmers like the surface of a lake — or the probing front of a camera lens. In Senegal, painting on glass is a science as well as a tradition: Masters turn out portraits on the backs of clear sheets, swivel them around, expose them to light, and generate an unearthly gloss and inner radiance that paintings with opaque backgrounds can’t match.

“The Wrestler” by Ibou Ndoye

Ibou Ndoye has plenty of experience painting on glass. In some of his works, the glass is broken, and fitted into the openings in wooden frames, like a ladder or a film strip. “Neighbors Near and Far,” his show at the Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University, doesn’t actually contain all that much glass painting. It mainly consists of huge, boisterous, enveloping canvases hung like tapestries; one of these is so long and broad that it spills down the wall and rolls, carpet-like, on to the floor. But all of these giant images possess the fiercely illuminated, sun-blasted quality of Senegalese glass painting. Glass is a major part of Ndoye’s artistic identity, and the translucent spirits of Dakar animate everything this artist does. Ndoye, who lives and works in Hudson County, doesn’t need to tell us that he was inspired to make these grand canvases after a trip to Africa. He doesn’t need to give us much background at all. The work speaks, eloquently, about his passions and his perspective.

Glass painting in West Africa has roots in a lower-tech era. Yet its modern resonances are undeniable. When done properly, a glass painting is seen through a thin, shiny transparent layer. It’s not unlike the way we modern viewers apprehend most of the images we encounter: through the backlit flat-panel screens of laptops and phones. The people on the seven glass plates in “Neighbors Near and Far” have the candid, shocked-awake, slightly distorted expressions that FaceTime imposes on those who use it. One man, depicted in sandals and a kufi, has his hands up and an entreaty on his worried face; another, a woman, carries an accusation in her eyes and a barbed threat in her hair, which leaps in black spikes from her head and scrapes the rim of the dish. Some of these glass vessels are circles, others are octagonal like a stop sign; all are, like iPhone screens, too small for the lively faces they trap and pin behind glass.

The characters in the wall-hangings play to the audience, too. A group of women sit around a mancala, and though they’re mid-game, they’re not looking at the pits and the pebbles. Instead, they’re staring outward, with smiles on the verge of grimaces, as if they’ve been posed there by an annoying photographer. The “Young Brothers” peer out between the skinny trunks of trees as if to challenge a voyeur treading on their turf. “The Wrestler,” the grey-faced star of a kinetic mixed-media canvas of paint and collage, performs his feats of strength and balance for two crowds — an arc of dispassionate dashiki-clad viewers who stand behind him and the real-life art appreciators on the gallery floor, who will be, I reckon, quite a bit more engaged.

In these scenes, there’s no place to hide: Sun and clear sightlines make every gesture apparent. Ndoye’s characters act like they know it. They’re all onstage or on camera, and their awareness of the viewer is inscribed in the pieces. And it’s this, more than the patterned backgrounds or brilliant colors or interplay of figures or even the facial features of the subjects, that marks this work as unmistakably West African in tone if not in origin. On glass and on canvas, Ndoye paints people who know you’re looking at them. They’re being watched, and they recognize it, and they pull you in to the performance.

“Uprooted” by Adebunmi Gbadebo

“Uprooted,” the other Black History Month exhibition currently on view at NJCU (this one is at the Visual Arts Gallery) addresses visitors in a thinner and sterner voice. The show features work by Newark-based sculptor and fiber artist Adebunmi Gbadebo, who works in a style that will be familiar to anybody who has seen recent avant-garde fiber art installations at area museums. Gbadebo makes large three-dimensional frames out of chicken wire and affixes massive amounts of fiber to the structure until it takes on the appearance of a huge fuzzy boulder or block. The boulder is suspended from a string and appears to float; the blocks are stacked into a great furry monolith of heft and subtle menace. Fingers of fiber climb a far wall as if they’re trying to escape the confines of the gallery. A long, thick rope snakes across the floor, daring visitors to pull it (don’t).

What’s really striking about these works, though, isn’t what they look like. It’s what they’re made of. All of Gbadebo’s artifacts are comprised of human hair — hair, specifically, from people of African ancestry. The artist does some amazing, gravity-defying things with the locks she’s collected: She masses it and hangs it in great bunches like animal pelts, she balls it up and stacks it, she pounds it flat until it has the consistency of paper and prints on it. So complete is her transformation of black hair that it often doesn’t look like hair at all. It’s possible to encounter, and even appreciate, Gbadebo’s work without ever realizing that the fibers she’s weaving, teasing, and flattening contain human DNA.

That is part of Gbadebo’s point, one that’s driven home further by her use of indigo dye, a substance associated with the slave trade. We don’t always notice the extent to which the manmade environment that surrounds us was built on the backs of black bodies. Yet to apprehend the full conceptual scope of “Uprooted,” the viewer needs to step back from the pieces and understand the backstory, the artist’s motivations and materials, and the conditions of the work’s creation. The show requires more than the basic transaction between the gallerygoer and the creator: It demands attention to something that can be missed if you aren’t in the know.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Museums in New York City have been mounting shows of that sort for years, and “Uprooted” does feel more like a Manhattan-style exhibition than anything I’ve yet seen in Jersey City. It’s hard not to contrast the Gbadebo exhibition with the tropical wave rippling at the Lemmerman. Ndoye’s figures establish an immediate relationship with the viewer. Gbadebo is quite a bit more parsimonious with her affections and with her energy, too. Instead of a rough neighborly handshake, she offers hard-won beauty. You’re welcome to observe it. Look at it long enough, and you might even get comfortable with it. But she’s certainly not going to do all the work for you.

Neighbors Near And Far: Ibou Ndoye
The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery
Hepburn Hall
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 3

Uprooted: Adebunmi Gbadebo
The Visual Arts Gallery
Visual Arts Building
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 5
Artist Reception: February 19, 4:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Header: Ibou Ndoye

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Cheryl Gross

Art Review: Cheryl Gross and Andrea McKenna at the Eonta Space


It’s difficult to be a human being on a planet in ecological distress. It’s far tougher to be anything else. Plants and animals have been hit hard by the Holocene—they’ve suffered from widespread habitat degradation and general disrespect from the dominant species (us). Some scientists argue that we humans have driven the biosphere into its sixth global extinction event. Others say we’re merely cutting a swath of unprecedented devastation. All agree: It’s bad out there.

Exterior conditions eventually seep into our interior worlds. Most thoughtful human beings are haunted by what we’re doing and how we’re living, and artists, for whom sensitivity is part of the calling, are particularly susceptible to guilt feelings. Yet expressing those reservations about our poor stewardship of the planet is a challenge. If an artist’s commentary is too subtle, she risks soft-pedaling something that demands immediate action. If her commentary is too blatant, she risks coming off as a scold.

An existential crisis requires an aesthetic response more forceful than the creeping unease present in many modern gallery shows. In a moment as fraught as the one we inhabit, we shouldn’t be put off by a firm guiding hand or even a wagging finger. “Commit to Memory: The Precipice of Extinction,” an arresting two-artist show that opens at Eonta Space (34 DeKalb Ave., eontaspacenj.com) at 6 p.m. tonight and runs through the end of March, makes a passionate case for the animals.  It can be blunt.  At times, it’s downright angry.  But it’s never less than articulate, and if it prompts viewers to chuck fewer bottles into the ocean, it’s wall space well used.

Not that all of it is on the walls. Some of the pieces in the show hang on a gauzy black curtain—a veil, really—that cuts Eonta Space in half. The rest of the gallery is inhabited by Cheryl Gross’s creatures drawn on paper in bright, lurid colors. Almost all of them are single images of animals that are either extinct or endangered.  A few of these tributes to the beasts in the crosshairs have been framed. Others feel like they were torn from the sketchbook and hung in the raw, which imparts some added urgency to a show that already rings like an alarm clock. Some of this work was indeed recently completed: A multi-panel image of an owl, its white wings fluttering across a hot yellow background, bears a 2020 date. Gross is feeling the press of time. She expects you to feel it, too.

Those familiar with the artist might remember prior work that possessed the fantastic quality of storybook illustrations. These drawings aren’t dissimilar: Her animals are patchworks of colors and textures, and the scenes they inhabit often contain splatters of ink, frantic crosshatches, waves and dots that reveal a world untethered and in motion. Yet the whimsy associated with Gross’s prior pictures isn’t always present. Instead, there’s peril, and unwelcome restraint—frogs hemmed in by black lines that bunch and scratch like barbed wire, red ink that drips suggestively over the determined face of a tortoise, a penguin with a bullseye in its belly. A flying squirrel, soaring from a blue sky into a nebulous field of gray, appears to be coming apart. Others blend in as best as they can, but camouflage isn’t easy to find. Many of the animals bump against the limits of the page, their  presence too large for the paper to contain—goldfish that have outgrown their tiny bowls to which they’ve been consigned by humans. The message is clear: There’s nowhere to hide.

To her credit, Gross resists the urge to anthropomorphize her beasts. She’s preserved their alterity and with it their dignity. The artist demands that the viewer confront these animals in all their animality and see them as creatures with the same right to inhabit the planet that humans have. The violence of habitat loss is not always left implicit. One fish is trapped in a bottle like a mariner’s model of a ship, while another confronts a row of plastic containers (and another blood-red splatter) with a look of extreme agitation. This sort of literalism would swamp an artist with lesser skills. But her experience handling fantasy material helps her out—she’s able to draw an allegory with a point so fine that you don’t mind cutting your fingers on it.

Gross supplements the drawings with a fifteen-minute animated film that features some of the same characters you’ll recognize from the walls. That penguin, for instance, has a starring role, although notably she’s given a near-human personality and a near-human set of concerns. This elicits sympathy for the character, but it doesn’t address the viewer with the same straightforward, impersonal honestly that the drawings do.

“Undercurrent” by Andrea McKenna. Photo courtesy Eonta Space

A better counterpoint to Gross’s images of animals is provided by a series of devastated paintings by Andrea McKenna, who is also the curator of the gallery at Art House Productions. These hang like scrolls from rough wooden rods affixed to both sides of the black curtain in the middle of the gallery.  Each image is of a single spectral human figure whose face and body is dissolving into the gloom that surrounds her. Some of the paintings are so distressed that they’re practically translucent—like a threadbare coat that’s no longer up to the task of stopping the wind. Gross’s color palette runs marvelously, unreasonably hot; McKenna works in steel gray, rust red, and institution blue. Gross’s work speaks of a fiery, vivid present where the animals are in peril. McKenna’s paintings whisper of a cold future after the animals are gone.

Both artists do have their antecedents in the canon. McKenna’s images, for instance, echo the modern dislocation and emotional fraying that Francis Bacon captures in his canvases. Nevertheless, their styles remind me more of pop-album art than museum art, and as a huge appreciator of record sleeves and covers, I don’t mean that as an insult. McKenna’s scraped and slathered paint and ghostly figures are evocative of industrial music and the art that surrounds it—images from the catalog of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, and similar groups. Likewise, the furiously colored animals in Gross’s drawings bear more than a passing resemblance to the menagerie of Roger Dean, the imaginary-landscape artist who designed the covers to many of the classic Yes sets of the 1970s. Yes was one of the first rock groups to take environmental threats seriously, and Dean’s images, fragile and fantastic as they are, are visual analogues of lyrics about a world spiraling close to the edge. Yes’s message was timely then, just as Eonta Space’s message is timely now. But eventually, time runs out.

“Commit to Memory” series by Cheryl Gross. Photo courtesy Eonta Space

Commit to Memory: On the Precipice of Extinction
Eonta Space (www.eontaspacenj.com)
34 DeKalb Ave.
February 7 — March 31
Artist Reception Weekend Hours: Friday 6-10 p.m., Saturday 4-8 p.m., Sunday 2-6 p.m.
Header: “Commit to Memory” series by Cheryl Gross. Photo by Tris McCall

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Heart Echoes: Paintings by Marta Blair

Heart Echoes: Paintings by Marta Blair


What makes for of a great local art exhibition?  Worthwhile works of art, of course: That’s a given. But that’s not all that’s necessary. A really good local show ought to be a match between the pieces on display, the gallery space, and the neighborhood in which the gallery is located. When you exit the art space and return to the street, the show shouldn’t stop. It should keep right on speaking to you about everything you see. Although a good local show will probably have prices on the pieces, it should never feel like a market, and the artists represented should not be attempting to use the show as a springboard to the monoculture or the art world (whatever that is). They should be idiosyncratic, and self-possessed, and more than a little stubborn about that. The show should put the visitors in contact with the definite, specific, ungovernable personalities of the artists. Ideally, those artists should live in the neighborhood where the gallery is located—and they should have plenty to say about their region.

Marta Blair isn’t a Jersey City resident. She’s from Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. Her studio is as far from the Colgate clock as it would be if she worked in Montclair. But Inwood would be instantly familiar to anybody who has spent time in Hudson County. Tower blocks and rows of medium-density housing, vast brick buildings, hulking public works facilities, bridges, and big black rivers on the periphery of the area: All of it feels like home. So, it’s no great coincidence that Blair works in a style similar to that of the post-industrial artists who’ve made some of the liveliest and most distinctive work to be shown in Jersey City in the past thirty years. Her show at the SMUSH Gallery (340 Summit Ave.), which opens at 6 p.m. tonight and runs until February 15, is honorary Jersey.

It’s also terrific, proof positive that small local shows can provide some of the biggest electric shocks. “Heart Echoes: Paintings by Marta Blair” is intimate, varied, and engrossing, and all of the pieces in the exhibition feel like expressions of the same personal vision. Blair’s work is rarely aggressive, but it can be forceful nonetheless. Some credit for the coherence of this show must go to SMUSH curator Katelyn Halpern, whose arrangement of the paintings takes advantage of the gallery’s coziness, and its rawness, too. She’s hung the imposing multi-panel “Red Painting 2” just below a large air duct in the ceiling as if to suggest that the large painting is also a kind of conduit. A long, thick ribbon of a painting is displayed in the front window much as a downtown clothier might show off a scarf.

But none of these clever gestures would work if Blair’s work didn’t sing in such clear, rough, sincere notes. Like many who work in this style, Blair incorporates urban detritus into her art—burlap, string, wooden slats, gauze, cotton mesh, rivets—but few bring out the beauty and dignity of these materials with such unerring grace. She has a knack for enhancing the expressive potential of the humble objects she uses and transforms. To see “Heart Echoes” is, for a few moments at least, to inhabit Blair’s sensibility:  The rhythms of the threads of industrial textiles, the subtle topography of paper, the mutable quality of cords, the joy of the small and functional all become palpable to the viewer. Her sense of awareness is contagious. The longer you look at these pieces, the wider your eyes will grow.

The materials that Blair uses aren’t hidden, but they aren’t oversold, either. They’re simply there to support the images, most of which are broadly abstract but hint at figuration. As you might expect from an artist whose work rests on keen observation, she takes her images to the very brink of the paper and sometimes beyond. At least one of her large wall hangings is fully illustrated on both sides; SMUSH will show you the back of it if you’re interested. There are few straight lines in Blair’s work. Instead, her pieces are filled with fields of bright acrylic color, large arcs, hooks, and intersecting crescents, occasional splashes, rivulets, and drippings and in one arresting piece a series of wormholes cut into the paper. Some of these designs threaten to coalesce into images of faces, or skulls, or human or celestial bodies, or hearts. But there’s so much motion in these paintings that nothing holds together for long.

Given the density of ideas, it’s a testament to Blair’s sense of balance and mastery of color that her work never feels busy. It can, however, be more than a little destabilizing, especially before your eyes have acclimated themselves to the artist’s vision. The big pieces in “Heart Echoes” are both beautiful and immersive, but the best and most approachable pieces in the exhibition are the artist’s six-inch-square wood panels. This is Marta Blair by the slice rather than by the whole pie, and they maintain the intensity of the wall hangings even as they’re possible to apprehend at a glance. SMUSH has arranged them in grids and strips reminiscent of the presentation of Lygia Pape’s “books” of forms: a tentative, hopeful imposition of geometric order on forces not easily tamed. The wood panels, which Blair simply calls “Small Works” (she clearly doesn’t like titling her paintings) crackle with energy. Some suggest alien landscapes while others seem to represent eyes or tilted heads. All are opportunities for Blair to show off her distinctive and pleasing palette: sea blues, grassy greens, Valentine pinks that thickens into rich reds. My favorite contains a furious gold squiggle in an upper corner. It’s an errant brain wave, a shock of lightning, a jump rope seized and jostled.

“Heart Echoes” is Marta Blair’s first solo exhibition. Talented and dedicated as she is, she’s no innate careerist. Her works are inscribed in a private visual language; because she’s fundamentally generous and communicative, that language is legible to viewers who are willing to meet her halfway. But she clearly doesn’t paint to please the crowd. She’s got her own heartbeat and her own singular aesthetic objectives. She’s exactly the sort of painter who local galleries should be championing. SMUSH recognized that, and in so doing Jersey City has been rewarded with its first can’t-miss art show of 2020.

Header: “Red Painting 2” by Marta Blair

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Ricardo Roig: Local Color


On the Mall in the middle of Central Park, art is everywhere. Most of it is similar: pastel prints and paintings of New York City landmarks, world-famous skyscrapers, falling leaves on Fifth Avenue, moons over Manhattan, generalized Gotham romance. If you’ve wandered through the Park, you’ve seen these pieces, and maybe you’ve even admired their brutal effectiveness. These painters and printmakers mean to sweep the viewer up in the New York story, and this they do crudely and expediently. It’s fine art (of a sort), but it’s also propaganda: univocal, meant to instill in the viewer a sense of excitement about the tourist experience. There may be many layers of paint, but there are few layers of meaning. No matter how cheesy the pictures seem, they do provide a glimpse of the city’s mercantile soul.

Two decades ago, no artist would have depicted Jersey City like this. Hudson County was resistant to glamorization. Instead, artists who engaged with the town— photographers Ed Fausty and Shandor Hassan, for instance—favored a stark realist approach so keenly and meticulously observed that it attained the alien quality of dystopic science fiction. Other artists working in the post-industrial style were determined to show Jersey City as it was—and it wasn’t always pretty. Beautiful sometimes, but never quiescent; if you came to Hudson County, you were going to encounter a landscape that would charge out to meet you, roar in your face, and leave some marks. Their Jersey City had teeth. 

This is not the Jersey City that Ricardo Roig presents in “Local Color.” The show, which will be on view at the Hamilton Square Condominiums (232 Pavonia Ave. at Hamilton Square Park) through April 24, features colorful screen-printed images of a Jersey City that feels becalmed, tamed, and ready to be sold to outsiders. The exhibition lacks the explosiveness and emotional intensity of curator Kristin DeAngelis’s last show in the Hamilton Square atrium. But it does have many compensatory charms, including its user-friendliness and genuine eagerness to please. It’s hard to imagine anything more accessible than a show of beautiful prints of places and sights that residents see every day. “Local Color” presents Roig as both a balladeer and a booster, a genial Downtowner with a pleasant vision of Jersey City that dovetails neatly with the city’s recent commitment to destination marketing.

“Choc-O-Pain” by Ricardo Roig

Ricardo Roig’s singular technique—his sharp-cut angles, his striking sense of color, his balance, and his knack for visual storytelling—places him miles beyond the picture hawkers in Central Park. Yet in tone, mood, and subject matter, he’s up to a similar thing. The artist army on the Mall anchors its myth-making in the city’s immediately observable landscape—its buildings and street scenes, its businesses and its marks of enterprise—and the upbeat rhythms of its architecture. We’ve got nothing as recognizable as the Empire State Building, but we have our visual symbols, too, and Roig rounds them up and makes them sing: the Colgate Clock, the gazebo at Hamilton Park, the blocky blue G of the Grove Street PATH Station, the Newark Avenue pedestrian mall. He’s drawn to bars and restaurants, and he gives us idyllic looks at Choc-o-Pain, the interior of the White Star, the umbrella-covered plaza outside Rumba Cubana, the yellow insignia of the strangely uncrushable Golden Cicada. Jersey City, this show tells us, is a place of constant commerce, too—maybe not as inexhaustible as our neighbor across the Hudson but bustling along nevertheless, committed to enterprise, on the rise with its shoes shined. 

These prints give Roig an opportunity to demonstrate one of his talents: He’s an ace at representing electric light. The glow behind the windows of the Choc-o-Pain is croissant-warm; even better is the unearthly shimmer of the reflections of the tall buildings on the Hudson. The strongest print in a show with many good ones isn’t local color at all, it’s a nighttime still of the venerable and unglamorous Long Island Bar on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The dive’s hot-pink neon signs dust the sidewalk with rouge. 

How does Roig achieve these high-contrast effects? Most likely, it’s residue of the unusual printmaking process he’s developed, one in which he applies paint to the canvases through stencils that are cut, poked, and pared into shape with a knife. Since each color requires its own screen, a Roig print is made up of a lattice of interlocking pigments: stenciled patterns that come together to form a familiar image. The tonal blurring that this technique produces can generate some hallucinatory effects. Human figures under the strings of lights on the Newark Avenue pedestrian plaza, for instance, really do seem to be slipping into the shadows. Other images, like an impossibly gentle rendering of the front of a commuter train pulling into Grove Street Station, possess the hushed, muted mystique of Nishiki-e woodblock prints. 

Unusually for a modern landscape artist, Ricardo Roig is also very good at capturing human bodies in action. The patrons he places at the White Star are all discernible individuals, some content, others a little impudent; they might even be people you recognize. In one striking print, a couple rides the Grove Street Path escalator to street level. The man stares straight ahead, but the woman looks backward, and ambivalence at her arrival is inscribed in her body language. This is a rare equivocal moment in Roig’s work, a passing minor chord in an otherwise concordant symphony, and it hints that his embrace of Jersey City might not be as total as it seems. 

Other pieces are so relentlessly positive that they could have been commissioned by a tourism council. The most awkward of these are ironically the two biggest and busiest in the show: a pair of works that combine Roig’s usual screen-printing techniques with elements of paper collage. These aren’t as assured or balanced as the smaller canvases; more problematically, they’re overstuffed with separate images meant to suggest an appealing whirlwind of urban activity. Despite Roig’s enthusiasm, they’re as impersonal as the murals that have turned areas of Jersey City into a garish open-air cartoon. Ironically, some of the most immersive pieces in the show are the tiniest: fragments and “fresh cuts” that are tight, focused, non-representational, and full of lively personality. They neither lionize nor criticize. They simply allow Roig’s considerable skills to speak for themselves. 

From George Inness to William Carlos Williams to the Boss, local pride has always been a powerful motivator for New Jersey artists. The Garden State isn’t always an easy place to love, but it does elicit protective feelings. Ricardo Roig clearly adores Hudson County, and his eagerness to share what he’s discovered here is apparent in every stencil he slices. He’s covered the obvious stuff—the landmarks everybody knows, the visitor attractions, and the well-trafficked streets that everybody treads. This talented and ambitious artist can afford to cut a little deeper. 

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