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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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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


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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Art Review: Maps Everywhere


Maps tell lies.  Oh, they may get you where you want to go, but they’ll whisper distortions in your ear as you travel. The Mercator Projection of the earth — perhaps the most famous map in history — has misled millions by exaggerating the size of land masses at polar latitudes and diminishing the tropics. Many of us deal daily with Mercator’s local cousin: the New York City subway map on which an artificially fattened Manhattan lords over the shrunken outer boroughs. Artist Jacob Ford is a man attuned to the political implications of cartography, and his MTA Peutingeriana redraws one of the most ancient maps of the Roman Empire in the unmistakable colors and fonts of the Big Apple underground. The Romans, too, warped space in the name of clarity and put their capital at the center of the world.

Monkeying with maps, it seems, is an ancient pastime, and Ford’s pointed, persuasive piece is representative of a new pair of shows running concurrently at two galleries on the NJCU campus.  Maps Everywhere (curated by Donna David and on view at the Visual Arts Gallery until Nov. 26) and Mapping Life (curated by Midori Yoshimoto and on view at the Lemmerman Gallery on the third floor of Hepburn Hall until Nov. 26) ask and answer questions in slightly different tones, but they’re best understood as a single continuous exhibition. In order to catch both halves, you’ll have to navigate the campus — and yes, that trip across the quad and Culver Street does feel like part of the show.

It’s an exhibition with salience to Jersey City. Our town has been aggressively mapped over the last few decades. Much of this activity has been benign: Signage has improved, there’s been an increasing amount of crosstalk between neighborhoods, and public policymakers, some of whom are affiliated with NJCU, have sought insight into how our town functions. But maps have also been the faithful tools of developers and planners who have redrawn the lines and zones in an effort to squeeze every penny out of land that has rapidly appreciated in value. Walking the streets of Jersey City means engaging with the practical consequences of mapping. In 2019, maps are, as the show suggests, everywhere – and for those who require or prefer hiding places, this is downright problematic.

Under the Big Tree by Noriko Ambe

The omnipresence of cartography is a recurring theme of the show. It’s expressed in visual and tactile language that’s sometimes humble, like Vivian Rombaldi Seppey’s homey slippers made of maps, and sometimes striking and invasive, like David Nuttall’s Human Terrain photographs of naked bodies illustrated with roads and grids. Noriko Ambe’s Under the Big Tree crafts a great hollow stump from history books; Adrienne Ottenberg’s painting A Walk in Algiers is so warmly ornamented that its map of the African city could double as an image of a quilt. Her Algiers is a cloak — a repository of the elements of local culture, a long weave in the making and a comfort on a cold night.

Other contributions to the exhibition are stark, minutely observed, hyper-local, captured with the probing eye of the social scientist. Brooklyn artist Jennifer Maravillas, a specialist in creative cartography, gleans the contours of JERSEY CITY: 1841, 1976, 2013, 2019 from four historic maps and highlights their similarities with bright washes of color. The piece borders on an infographic: It’s as informative as any wordless work of art can be, and it suits a show held on a college campus. Dominique Paul traveled New York City in an electronic dress that doubled as a data visualizer: Wherever she went, her outfit would light up in a hue that corresponded to the street’s median income level (the dress and a video documentary of her trip are both on view at the Lemmerman).

A performance art piece like this wouldn’t be possible without thorough census records, and it shrewdly exposes the benefits and problems that accompany scrupulous mapping.  From one perspective, Paul is demonstrating the remarkable unevenness of wealth in our region, and, in so doing, she’s raising awareness of income inequality. Yet she’s also poking fun at the social-scientific tendency to color code and classify a place as complicated as New York City. What happens to a neighborhood when it’s stigmatized and consigned to the troubled regions of the map? Is it really helpful for the government to know what everybody is making, or is all of this cartography simply an extension of surveillance culture?

At least one of her documentary interview subjects has a strong opinion on the subject. He believes that it’s only the taxman who is interested in his low-rent neighborhood, and he stands to be counted only so he can be shaken down by the authorities for the little he’s got.  Whether he knows it or not, he’s echoing a popular argument against mapping and census taking that goes back at least as far as the Bible. It’s a perspective that Nyugen Smith would probably understand. His beautiful wall hanging of a reimagined Hispaniola echoes motifs common among the maps used by colonizers and juxtaposes them with more alarming images: a skull, dry bones, a snake warning away intruders. It’s an effective critique and a reminder that cartographers were indispensable to the Columbian exchange.

Ironically, it’s also a reminder that the tools of the oppressor could also be beautiful. Nyugen’s Bundlehouse Borderlines No 6 (emembe) really does communicate that sense of curiosity, play, and new discovery that is often visible in maps from the colonial era. Some of these explorers did actually believe in magic, but even those who didn’t had their imaginations fired by the encounter with the not-yet-known. Their maps were unions between the realized and the purely theoretical; they were documentaries, yes, but in another way they were speculative fiction.

It is hard for modern maps to cast the same spell although contemporary artists do like to recapture some of the mystery by blurring those state-sanctioned lines. Abby Goldstein’s Reimagining Brooklyn paintings begin with historic city grids, which she then smothers in her own colored ink — and the artist’s defiant glee as she smooths over artificial divides and mashes neighborhoods together is pleasantly palpable. The full wall of her work at the back of the Maps Everywhere gallery feels gently impudent: a kiss-off to the developers currently dominating her borough. Kingsley Parker’s Atlas takes this desire for a personal and alternative brand of city planning to its logical extreme. His maps look authentic, right down to the book he’s bound them in, but they’re entirely fictitious. This is escapism, pure and simple, and it’s wonderful.

So, it’s more than a little surprising that Maps Everywhere closes with an entreaty to viewers to participate in the collective manufacture of a large wall map of Jersey City. After viewing art that is unmistakably ambivalent about the implications of exhaustive mapping, you’re invited to plot your home and businesses you frequent on the grid. Surely most of the artists featured in these two concurrent exhibitions would agree that such a map would be a very cool thing aesthetically, and practically, too. They also might tell you about the real benefits of getting, and staying, lost.

 

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Art Review: Cosmic Love


Cosmic Love 3 by Bill Stamos

The shape of the cosmos is curved. Its lines are soft, its dimensions are mutable, and its character is defiantly feminine. That’s the message — one of them, anyway — of the Cosmic Love show at Drawing Rooms in the Topps Industrial Building at the western tail end of Newark Avenue. Nothing about this uncommonly welcoming group exhibition feels rigid or cold: These seven artists might have their minds on the distant skies, but their collective version of space is nothing like a void.

And if that sounds a little hippie-ish to you, well, yes, Cosmic Love is as eager to embrace the viewer as any flower child might be. This is an exhibition that greets visitors with cloth vines bearing bright fiber blossoms. The piece grows out of the main space and penetrates the entry hall, and Jill Scipione, the fabricator of these flowers, does intend to get you knotted up and drawn toward the rest of the show. But the exhibition that waits within — one that covers a substantial amount of ground despite its modest size — isn’t particularly starry-eyed or blissed out. Many of these works radiate impermanence. As Douglas Adams (and countless physicists) assured us, the universe is a big, daunting, overwhelming place to navigate.

Two large works on paper by Bill Stamos grapple with this sense of immensity: Cosmic Love  Cosmic Love and Cosmic Love 3 greet the visitor to Drawing Rooms with twin slices of night sky. Technically, these are abstractions — colored streaks and constellations of glitter set against deep black backgrounds. Non-figurative though they may be, they definitely suggest astral phenomena; stare at them for a while, and they may lift you well beyond the roof of the factory.

Paintings from the deft brush of Sky Kim simultaneously evoke the grand and the microscopic. Her watercolors are so precisely rendered that they take on the meticulous quality of pen-and-ink drawings. Two works in her “Multiverse Series” hang on the southern wall of the main room — one may put you in mind of star charts, the other of furry, anemone-like undersea animals. Spheres, circles, and curves recur throughout the exhibit: Across from Kim’s illustrations of jeweled discs and hairy balls is a wall installation by Anne Trauben that includes clusters of round objects (including lightbulbs) in a steady and sinuous progression. Across from the Stamos pieces, a raft of Scipione’s cloth roses — the same kind that beckon visitors in the hallway — are arranged in a colorful clutch. It’s a humble, terrestrial counterpoint to the rest of the art in the show, and its tactility is a foretaste of the show’s wild, wigged-out centerpiece.

skykim-untitled-watercolor

Untitled by Sky Kim

Save a colorful scrawl by Jim Pustorino in pencil and paint, the second of the two Drawing Rooms is devoted to fiber art. Mollie Thonneson‘s strips of fabric and torn and repurposed bras underscore the pervasive femininity of Cosmic Love — the sense of the universe as a kind of vast womb, dark, mysterious but ultimately self contained and nurturing — but these pieces are upstaged by GYPSY KOOMBYEYAH, a massive tangle of colored thread, wire, torn sheets, hula hoops, and hidden nests for found objects. (This includes Spiderman himself, who peers out from a perch within the web.) Maggie Ens, the creator of this installation, strung it high across the back wall, where it hangs like a net waiting to fall on the unwary. Like all of Ens’s work, it’s chaotic but deeply warm: It feels like a ball of yarn any curious cat could get pleasantly tangled in, and it rewards close engagement.

 GYPSY KOOMBYEYAH is, indisputably, the Big Bang of this show.  But this star plays well with its supporting cast.  Ens’s view of the cosmos as a bright and bewildering net of associations and connections — one that contains joy and confusion in equal measure — one that’s shared in varying degrees by the other artists in Cosmic Love. The installation by Ens is big and bossy enough and contains enough fissile material to shine some golden light on everything else in the exhibition. These days, the cosmos is often imagined as an airless, unyielding place; this show is a pleasant reminder that it just might possess a beating heart.

(Cosmic Love is on display until November 10 at Drawing Rooms, Topps Industrial Building, 926 Newark Avenue, Thursday and Friday 5-8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 1-6 p.m.)

 

Tip from Tris: If you’re making the trip to Drawing Rooms on this Friday and Saturday and you’re in the mood for some mind-altering sensory deprivation, take the elevator to the basement of the Mana Contemporary complex (it’s just across the street) and check out Kurt Hentschläger’s “SUB.” The installation plunges the viewer into absolute darkness broken only by occasional flashes from a giant light fixture. The combination of the pitch-black surroundings, the ominous soundtrack, and the sudden, spooky erruptions of illumination combine to create an experience of great intensity; to be frank, it’s more than a little terrifying, and it’s a crying shame that it’s open only until October 19. It may not have been the artist’s intent, but this mini show is perfect for the Halloween season.

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